Skip to main content

Reading, Readability, and You

By Mary Vitcenda, Senior Editor

Let’s talk about reading.


Not reading for leisure, but reading for information you need to get something done. If you’re like most people, you scan and skim until you find exactly what you’re looking for, like the instructions for how to get that spot out of your living room rug. And if you don’t spot what you want quickly, you’ll stop reading and go elsewhere.

This “scan and skim” tendency is magnified on the web, where users don’t even necessarily read from top to bottom or word by word. Instead, they often skip around the screen in search of information, and if they don’t find it right away, they’re gone.

three heatmaps from user eye tracking studies
Heatmaps from user eyetracking studies of three websites. The areas where users looked the most are colored red; the yellow areas indicate fewer views, followed by the least-viewed blue areas. Gray areas didn't attract any fixations.
Photo credit: Nielsen Norman Group.

What does this mean for us, the staff and educators at Extension? Consider our key objectives: to deliver evidence-based, practical education and engage Minnesotans in building a better future for our state. Sometimes we seek to engage our audiences by conversing or cooking with them. Other times, we seek to engage with them through text on the web.

Incidentally, more than 20,000 people visit Extension’s website every day. And three out of four sessions on our website start with an online search. So we’re already doing a good job attracting visitors via use of key words.

But, as noted, we also want to engage these visitors. We want them to stick around and we want them to return. They won’t do either if text is too complex and wordy. So, our online text needs to be as “readable” to as many people as possible. And that brings me to “readability.”


The readability of text is important for all audiences, but some more than others. One group of people for whom readability is extra important is, of course, recent immigrants and other English language learners. They certainly appreciate easy-to-understand text.

Readability is also of vital importance to people with learning or physical disabilities. They read words letter by letter, sometimes with the aid of screen readers. This makes each long word and long sentence a challenge. So readability is about meeting accessibility standards, too.

Finally, readability is important to engaging with those website visitors I mentioned earlier — visitors who often find Extension through web searches. Last year, four out of five first-time visitors came to the Extension website through a web search. This translates into almost seven million people who may have been unfamiliar with us but could benefit from something we offer. In other words, these searchers are potential users of Extension services, either as program participants or program partners.

In the case of 4-H, the Extension Center for Youth Development calls these potential new users of Extension services first generation users because they come from families with no history of involvement in 4-H. Extending that concept means that every Extension center, including Family Development, must attract first generation participants and partners if they want to remain relevant and vital contributors to the health of communities across Minnesota.

You (and Review)

So, let’s review.
  • What is readability on the web? Answer: It’s about making online text clear and easy to understand. 
  • Why should you care? Answer: to help fulfill Extension’s mission, which calls for “Making a difference by connecting community needs and University resources to address critical issues in Minnesota.”

Next time: How do you achieve readability on the web?

FD web coordinator Hannah Jastram Aaberg contributed to this article.

Print Friendly and PDF