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.