User Experience: Why Words (really) Matter in UX

There are thousands of words on your website. Are they helping or hurting your user experience (UX)?

The guiding principle for modern websites is to drive a streamlined user experience. For very good reason teams focus on user interface (UI) and design, tweaking and testing so visitors can find what they need. We want visitors to stay engaged, and complete a task or find information. Web teams focus on wireframes, interaction design and "beautiful" sites.

Yet, they often overlook the thousands of words that make up the paragraphs and pages of content.  Once readers' eyes hit words, then cognitive processing begins. And that's often where the problem begins, interaction falls off, and we see churn.

System 1 versus System 2

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winning author of "Thinking Fast and Slow" uses the terms "system 1" and "system 2" to describe how we process and understand information. System 1 is intuitive, non-thinking. System 2 kicks in when the brain must work on the problem.

If I ask you what is 2+2, your system 1 brain immediately answers 4.

Now, if I ask you what is 2,531 + 9,518? without using a calculator, then your system 2 brain kicks in. You focus, and your cognitive load increases as your brain works towards the answer; 12,049.

And it is the same for language. If a Web visitor arrives at a Web page with a complex message, they must spend mental energy working to understand. And since people scan web pages and spend 15 seconds on average on each page, they will most likely churn.

Are you inadvertently making your visitor work to understand your message?

Teams work hard to write useful content, but there's a natural blind spot in seeing their content through their audience's eyes. Is your blog post, privacy policy, or thought leadership piece easy to read and understand?
user experience quote

Or does it take too much effort, repelling visitors and causing them to go elsewhere? Is it forcing our system 2 brain to do too much work?

And that's before we think of the personae we're writing to. What about visitors with disabilities or those with limited education, or those without English as a first language or those who are older?

Test Readability Early and Often

We must test the readability of every element of the site. Just like you test performance, broken links etc., so too should you test the clarity of language.

The good news is that we see more and more AI (artificial intelligence) and NLP (natural language processing) tools to help. Even Microsoft Word's auto-complete is getting in on the action.

Here is MS Word suggesting a change as I write this article:


That approach may work tactically for writing a single piece of content, but what if the website is comprised of tens to thousands of pages, with links to numerous documents?  What if you want to ensure consistency, so that it all content reads more like Reader's Digest than an academic journal?   

Newer more sophisticated technology offerings allow you measure entire websites from a clarity standpoint on several dimensions. These include the Readability (reading ease), Reading Level (equivalent grade level), sentence length and passive language.  

Here are some results from one such clarity grader tool:


Using AI and NLP, these tools find content problems and provide suggested fixes, performing at scale what humans are challenged to do. This automation can eliminate the guesswork in auditing and migrating old content, before launching a new website and to ensure optimal UX on an ongoing basis.

While Web analytics can show page views, dwell times and usage paths, these statistics are limited in revealing where and what issues reside in the content itself.  Web and content teams now have tools that can instantly scan, score, and measure the clarity across a nearly unlimited number of Web pages and docs in seconds.  With the heavy investment being made in content management systems, it follows there should be an objective and quantifiable way to ensure content clarity across the digital enterprise.

Web teams can now gain a holistic view of user experience, not just from the design and UI perspective, but content language also. And that's got to be welcomed.

About the Author
Coming from an IT program background Fergal McGovern saw how much wasted time, money and confusion resulted from poor communication, especially written content. His mission is to make business communications clearer throughout industry and government. He founded VisibleThread to help solve this problem, applying natural language processing and technology to automate and improve content clarity. Test your content for free here.