What George Osborne can teach you about web readability

George Osborne, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, looked pretty pleased with himself yesterday after delivering a budget speech in which he pulled out a few surprises. Nobody had predicted the National Insurance relief for businesses. Neither had anyone seen the mortgage deposit loan scheme coming. And he got massive cheers when he announced that the £10,000 tax free earnings band would be introduced a year early.

George Osborne, Chancellor

Before MPs had filed out of Parliament to do their rounds of media interviews on College Green, opposite the Palace of Westminster, the electronic airwaves of Twitter, blogs and forums were awash with comments about the surprises in the Budget. And if you waited for 5 minutes after the speech, until those radio and TV interviews took place, you’d have found all the interviewees – not matter what political persuasion – chatting about those surprise headlines.

If you were the Chancellor, you’d be pleased at the result; job done. You’ve got everyone focusing on some unexpected highlights, meaning the details you glossed over go largely unnoticed. True, accountants and financial advisers will pore over the multitude of press releases and the “red book” issued by the Treasury immediately after each budget.  But for most of us, that all passes us by. All we can really focus on in the aftermath of yesterday’s speech is that beer is a penny cheaper and that we might get some help with buying a new house.

This is really an issue of attention. The Chancellor cleverly diverted our attention away from some of the gory details of the financial mess the country is in, right on to some attractive things he highlighted in dramatic fashion.

When our attention is drawn to specific things, we do not see the detail. And that can be bad because sometimes the detail is important.

On the web our attention is diverted from reading articles, for instance, by headlines, sub-headlines and items which are hyper-links or that stand out in bold text. Indeed, the view from many experts is that we read differently online, that we skim read and therefore if you have a website you need to give people material they can easily digest, with lots of headlines, subheads, bullet points and obvious links.

The problem with this philosophy is that people only attend to those highlights you are giving them; they pay less attention to the detail.

Of course, if you are like George Osborne and you don’t want them to pay attention to the detail, that’s great. There may be a valid reason for doing that, such as driving people towards a purchasing decision.

However, if you want them to understand your material, to engage with what you are offering, the highlighting strategy works against you. Here’s why.

When you read something, without it being broken up into bits and pieces, your brain has activity in several regions which are sensory centres. When reading a good book, for instance, your brain just doesn’t fire the visual centres so you can read the text, parts of your brain involved in hearing come into play, as do those associated with touch, smell, emotion and so on. If the author is walking you down a road in words, the parts of your brain involved in walking start to activate. The result is you are completely engaged, you are “feeling” the text and you are able to understand it much better when so many different brain areas are working together.

But when you skim read, those other areas of your brain do not fire up. In other words, using the advice to produce web pages which have headlines, subheads and so on means you are potentially REDUCING engagement in your audience. Rather than working for you, that strategy could well be working against you.

It’s akin to accountants advising you only based on the highlights that George Osborne gave us yesterday. Without engaging with the detail, they cannot function for you well. Similarly, if your web visitors cannot fully engage with what you are giving them, they’ll either get the wrong end of the stick, misunderstanding what you offer, or pass you by because they haven’t engaged enough.

So what can George Osborne teach you about the readability of your website? Well, don’t write it in the way he prepared his speech; that was merely a magic trick, diverting our attention from  the detail.

Picture Courtesy: The Prime Minister’s Office

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