Readability, what’s that mean?
Readability is often given a nod. I think we can all agree that materials need to be readable, after all, if materials aren’t readable for the intended users, one might ask, what’s the point of them at all?
Readability isn’t just about meeting the communication needs of people who do not prefer to interact with written materials, whether that is due to language barriers, vision or cognitive challenges, exposure to and comfort with the written word, or because of time or attention constraints. I’m talking about busy moms, healthcare professionals, executives, government officials, graduate students, as well as people who find reading challenging. Readability is an issue for all of us and goes to the heart of not only access to the sea of information now available to us, and our ability to take in and make use of this abundance, but also our ability to fight disinformation and interact with ideas critically. Good writing has never been more important.
In graduate school for urban and regional planning, I took a course on community economic development from one of the most engaging, and demanding, professors in the program. The concepts were obtuse, the reading dense. I was a “non-traditional” graduate student, meaning I was older than my peers and later in my career. I felt frustrated that I just could not seem to grasp the material. Perhaps I was just not smart enough or maybe economics was just not for me. The shame and self-doubt started to creep in so I set up a conversation with the professor to ask what I was doing wrong, as I simply could not understand the concepts and I was drowning in the reading.
“I’m not surprised, a lot of academic writing is terrible,” she calmly told me. “Which articles are you struggling with the most?”
“To be honest,” I said, “yours.”
“That’s because they were published before I learned to write for people to read,” she replied.
Good writing makes even the most technical content accessible. If I’m not drawn in by content now, I start by wondering if the author just didn’t know how to make their ideas readable.
Clear writing = greater readability
Readability is ultimately about how easy or difficult it is for readers of a text to grasp its ideas. Whether you are reading academic articles, a school textbook, newspaper, text message, job aid, or road sign, you need the writing you interact with to be readable. In other words, if you are the intended audience, you need to be able to understand what the heck it is the writer is trying to convey!
Unfortunately, popular conceptions of readability — such as readability calculators — reduce readability down to pretty much two things: vocabulary and sentence length. I promise: you can have a simply worded document full of short sentences that is incredibly difficult to read; and, you can use big words and long sentences to get your point across quite clearly. Readability is much more than our sentence structure and word choice, though it can include those things. It is, ultimately, about the art of clear writing.
What readability scores leave out
It is a common request to aim writing geared toward a certain literacy level, with the assumption that literacy level is a good proxy for readability. It is not. While we hope to move away from “level” language, particularly literacy level, it is important to understand how readers prefer to interact with vocabulary and sentence structure and using one of the various readability level calculators is one way to begin understanding where readers are at. But this is just the minimum of what is needed to produce readable content, not to mention material that is accessible and useful (we’ll get to those in a moment). How might we enrich our ideas about readability?
Readability means having relevant content. Writing should be grounded in context. Stories and experiences must resonate with readers’ needs and reality. This means using words that the reader is familiar with and building on concepts and experiences they recognize from their own lives.
Readability means understanding brains. Our brains are particular about how ideas are presented, even more so when you recognize our neurocognitive diversity! Consider cognitive load in shaping the content toward a readable piece. Put ideas into a logical flow. Chunk and parse text into sections. Use titles and headers. Here is where clear sentences and vocabulary come in. Ahhh, my brain thanks you.
Readability means being compelling. Have you ever really wanted to learn about something but the source you had was simply too dry? Oof, not readable. Technical content may need to be even more compelling than a story to be readable. Use stories, metaphors, and imagery. Consider the visual design. All of this contributes to readability.
Readability means writing for a (specific) audience. You may notice that for each of the above points, you have to know something about the reader. The ultimate question in readability is, readable for whom? What is recognizable, understandable, and compelling to your reader? To write well, knowing your audience makes a difference. Some writers put pictures of their audience up in the area where they are writing so they can look up and write as if they are talking to that person. Whatever it takes for you, as you write, keep yourself focused on the needs, motivations, skills, and preferences of the people you want to read what you are putting down.
Greater readability + purposeful design = greater accessibility
Accessibility is more than just having text that is clear; it comes not just from the words on the page but how they appear. The typeface, arrangement, empty space, images, colors, organization of the text, the hierarchy of information — there is really only so far clear writing can go without skilled design (and only so much shine a skilled designer can put on unclear writing).
As Gareth Ford Williams of The Readability Group points out, good design, like good writing, is not something we can arrive at merely by following a checklist. Just as there is a role for skilled writers, there is a role for skilled designers in shaping writing into something that is accessible on an emotional level. Without attending to how it feels to take in and interact with materials — and ultimately investing in good design — the content of those materials is not available, and the ability to use the materials is impaired.
Readability requires writers who understand the audience, shape ideas, organize the thinking, and find out what is worth reading. Accessibility requires designers who can understand the audience and craft visuals, and layouts to support messages and increase information uptake. Neither of these is easy to give a score, but oh my do they make it ever easier to read.
A special note about making ideas more visual.
Yes, and … People often think of visual representations (frameworks, models, data visualizations) as a way to make complex ideas more readable, but visualization can quickly complicate things, as this often requires decoding shapes, figures such as arrows, colors, implied context and concepts, in addition to words! And, they so often “say” something very different than the concept they are trying to illuminate — for those of us who are visual first, this can be very disorienting.
Visualizations offer different ways to take in information, particularly around how ideas relate to one another, and thus can support readability when well designed and when presented within a clear context. However, just adding a graphic does not inherently make information easier for people to digest.
Greater accessibility + motivation = reading and use!
When you have readable, accessible documents that resonate with readers and encourage them to engage with and build on their own curiosity about a topic at hand, then you unlock the real magic of the written word. Even within contexts where written materials are not the preferred way of interacting with information, where storytelling is a skill and learning is hands-on, the written word still serves a powerful purpose, it remains one of the most effective tools that humans have invented to hack our working memory’s shortcomings, acting as a reminder, a reference and an opportunity for sharing new ideas.
Ultimately we are aiming for turning ideas into action and support putting learning to use. Without readability, even the most important of materials find their way to other purposes–as kindling, toys, shims, wall coverings, and more. Focusing on readability — or going all out and putting accessibility first — means developing materials that are picked up, read, marked up, shared, and most importantly used, again and again.
This article was written by Jennifer Compton and Katrina Mitchell in a zig-zag mind meld of expertise, experience, and our shared love of good, clear writing (which we are always striving toward, a life-long goal!).
Jennifer Compton, Evaluator, Experiential Education Designer, Writer, lover of learning who delights in finding “aha” moments, and senior associate at Picture Impact.
Katrina Mitchell, Designer, Urban Planner, Strategist, Maker, relentless seeker of beauty, and co-founder of Picture Impact.