Too Hard to Read?

OK, we may be getting older, but we’re also going blind reading copy on most web sites. Every day, we find ourselves inching ever closer to our computer screens just to decipher text. There’s got to be a better way.

Short of getting a magnifying glass, there is. Here is our checklist for preventing blindness (and frustration) in adults using the Internet.

Typeface font and size. Select a typeface font for your body copy that is easy to read, such as Arial or Times. Make it at least 12 pt. Be aware that text size generally appears larger on a PC than on a Mac. This is a problem that most seasoned web designers or HTML coders are aware of, but if you’d like some tips on how solve it, read this article by Steve Mulder at Razorfish.

Background images. First-generation web sites often include an organization’s logo – or some repeating design – in the background of the page. Busy e-commerce sites have gotten rid of this idea, but you still notice it often on the sites of smaller companies or nonprofit organizations. Do your visitors a favor and get rid of background graphics as quickly as you can. They are distracting and often take too long to download. Furthermore, the lines and colors of the background graphic can compete with your type, making it very difficult to read the body text.

Background color. For much the same reason, avoid using black or a dark color as a background. We work with a number of architectural firms and furniture manufacturers who love the design sophistication of black. On the web (as in print), a black background with white type is extremely hard to read, especially for multiple paragraphs of body copy set in a small type size. On the other hand, for headings or section dividers, light-colored type on a dark-colored bar can be a simple, effective way to add interest to a page.

There’s another problem with using white type on a black screen background. When you print the page, it often comes out blank. This occurs because many browsers have a default setting to print background colors as white. (Don’t change this setting because it saves ink!) The result can be a white page with white type.

Column width and spacing. A reader’s eye has trouble following wide columns of type. (Ever wonder why newspapers are designed with multiple columns on a page?) On your web pages, limit the width of columns to no more than 60 characters, and provide lots of white space. Also, strongly reconsider any design that has two or more vertical newspaper columns that require users to scroll up and down if they want to read all of the content. Be consistent in your use of columns. A client of ours had narrow columns on one page and wide columns on the next.

Short paragraphs. Get out of the high school writing class mindset and break up those multisentence paragraphs. Pick up a brightly written newspaper or magazine, and count the number of sentences in a typical paragraph. This is the style of writing your readers are accustomed to reading; use a similar style on your web site.

Use of boldface and italics. Some boldface and italics is good, but too much can be jarring to the eye. Use it sparingly.

Scrolling. Sometimes you can’t avoid making your site visitors scroll down a page, particularly if you are posting lists or longer articles. However, too much scrolling can also cause visitors’ eyes to tire.

Never, ever, make your users scroll horizontally. This could make them repeatedly scroll left and right just to read a full line of type. Instead, limit your content to a screen width of about 590 pixels, which will not require horizontal scrolling on any computer monitor. (Remember, various people have their screens set to various resolutions, affecting how much content will be visible on their screen without scrolling.)

Test it out. We both use different computer platforms. We often sit in our respective offices looking at the same web site having totally different experiences. It is always good to test your site out on two different machines on both Netscape and Internet Explorer browsers. If you really want to be thorough, have someone younger than 25 and someone older than 40 look at it, too. You may be surprised at what they tell you.

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