Writing web pages for workers

Jakob Nielsen is a name that will be familiar to those of you who design web pages. Nielsen is the world’s leading expert on website usability. Thanks to his efforts, a lot of websites are a lot easier to use these days. (One of his fortnightly columns on the subject of “why frames suck” is one of the reasons why so few websites use frames anymore.)
These days Nielsen has been writing about other aspects of usability, including how to write for the web. He taught thousands of web designers that it’s not enough to design a clean and attractive website — the site has to be written for an audience which tends to scan, rather than read.
Now Nielsen has explored the question of designing websites for “lower-literacy users”. Nielsen estimates that some 30% of Internet users in the United States today fall into this category and expects that number to rise to 40% within five years. It goes without saying that many of those “lower-literacy users” come from the working class and the poor.
This makes his recommendations for designing websites for such audiences particularly relevant to trade unions — but I wonder how many union websites come close to understanding the issues involved.

Nielsen says that “lower-literacy users” tend to read a page word-by-word. They do not scan. As they have to spend considerably more time reading a page, they may lose patience and not complete the text.
Because of this, he makes several clear recommendations which should be adopted by websites — including union sites — aiming to reach such audiences:
1. Use text aimed at a 6th grade reading level. (For regular websites aimed at the general public, Nielsen urges an 8th grade reading level.)
2. Prioritize information — put the most important stuff up on top. (I’m reminded of the old journalistic advice to put the who, what, when, where and why in the first paragraph of a news story.)
3. Use static text, not animations.
4. Streamline page design — ideally, use only one column.
5. Optimize search to make it tolerant of mis-spellings.
Most of this is pretty good advice in general, and not only for “low-literacy users”. If you want people to be able to read your website on their mobile phones and PDAs, or to make the site more accessible to disabled readers, you’ll be following some of these guidelines anyway.
How do union websites stack up to these recommendations?
I’ve just had a look at the Change to Win site. Its opening paragraph is a single sentence consisting of no fewer than 79 words. That’s not only unsuitable for “low literacy users” — that’s simple bad writing.
As for the reading level required to understand the “Change to Win” website, it’s a whopping 13.6 — in other words, on average, a person would need to have completed some university to understand the page. The Wall Street Journal, by comparison, is rated at 11. That’s right — it’s easier to read The Wall Street Journal than it is to read this union website.
The AFL-CIO website comes in a 9.23 and the IWW is rated at 10 — better than “Change to Win”, but still far above what Nielsen recommends.
In general, trade union websites do not receive massive amounts of traffic. And this is still true, even though more and more union members and potential members have come online in recent years. There are many reasons for this — including the simple fact that many of our sites are boring. But another reason might be that for many members, the sites are simply too difficult to read. And that is something which can be fixed.

9 Comments on "Writing web pages for workers"

  1. In the old days of paper, we had a rule in our Branch that you had to get all your print onto one side of an A4 sheet. Anything longer, would not be read.

  2. yes, it is true, I easily get bored when I read long articles that seem to use many words and do not tell me much that I really understand. Then I get upset and go to some other reading without finishing the presently reading article. Jurgen P. Kuhl

  3. You’re so right about this one Eric. Not only does Labour need to follow the advice to bring our writing and style in line with what actual people need, but everyone interested in labor issues should follow suit.
    When we write, we should want to be understood. Fancy words are not needed to tell our story, and can get in the way.
    Think of it this way: If we can get our message as simple as a “stop” sign, everyone will understand what we mean. Does anyone not know what the “swoop” means? Is there a person on the planet who doesn’t know the Pepsi logo? And yet there is no similar logo for our various causes, at least not one that has really stuck. Anarchists have the “A” in a circle, Marxists have the Hammer and Sickle, Greens have the Sunflower, but the overall effort doesn’t yet have that sort of simple statement that everyone can see and grasp.
    BUT, for today, just writing clearly and designing websites to be truly useful is more than enough.

  4. Ron Stockton | 20/08/2005 at 01:52 |

    This is great advice. However, it is discouraging to learn that in the “developed” and modern, western world, workers’ ability to read and comprehend is declining. Disappointing, but not surprising. Another inevitable result of capitalism.
    One of the rules we try to keep in mind for printing union bulletins is, “lots of white space”. I have great difficulty reading and comprehending anything when it is on a computer screen so I always print the document to read it. I am a lawyer (representing only unions and employees) and must do lots of reading, so I can imagine how hard it is for someone with a low literacy level. (Just so we don’t change the topic of the debate, I willingly acknowledge that not all lawyers are literate.)

  5. Michael J. Dollard | 20/08/2005 at 02:31 |

    As a testing expert having dealt with these issues, add:
    1. Leave a good amount of ‘white space’ around your text.
    2. Use a clear, preferably ‘sans serif’ font.
    3. Use a large font. I prefer 14 pt.
    4. If using color for text, keep it simple: black on white, brown on yellow, or white on blue seems to maximize readibility.
    5. You don’t want your copy to be ‘choppy,’ but do use simple declarative sentences: subject – verb – predicate.
    6. Avoid complex sentences with dependent clauses.
    7. If possible, use a ‘word use’ book to choose words of the right reading level. Ask a librarian. An excellent source was created in the development of the American Heritage Dictionary.

  6. While I understand the benefits of re-writing and redesigning labour websites for the sake of low literacy individuals, I think that we must focus more on the importance of better educational opportunities for workers and people in general.
    We must demand this from the governments and corporations alike. Better educational opportunities present a better future, than low literacy websites.

  7. I can see why the IWW page might lean a little too much in the “academic” direction, seeing as how I have two degrees (though to be fair, I have tried very diligently to keep things simple).
    However, some of the responsibility must be laid at the feet of the Wobblies of old, because the IWW organizers back in the day believed that self-education and education of the working class was essential towards abolition of wage slavery.
    We do have to draw the line somewhere. The capitalist class wants to dumb us down to the intelligence of common plants. At some point we have to resist that. Where should we draw the line?

  8. marcy rein | 24/08/2005 at 00:32 |

    Thanks for this. It came just in time. I’m putting together some organizing information for my union’s Web site. When I checked my text, most of it reads at about a ninth-grade level. Do you have any resources or suggestions on how to bring the level down? What makes text harder to read? I know sentences and words should be short and clear, but what else?

  9. How can “low literacy” unionists write such complicated stuff? Does this mean that unionist website contributors are an elite? Or are you (is he) implicating that the working class is still being manipulated by bourgeois activists?

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