Lessons learned from testing written content with users

Over many years, I have tested written content on a diverse range of topics such as cycling safety, exchange-traded funds, denied insurance claims, superannuation fees and charges, and making a will. I have watched how people read letters, landing pages, statements and brochures and how they filled in forms. From this experience, I have learned how people actually read.

User testing shows when people skim read or stop reading

Content creators are often advised to write for skim readers who navigate via headings.  In my experience, this is only partly true. It depends on how familiar the content is to them - or rather how familiar it seems and what they presume they need to do after reading it.

Lesson 1. Users skim read when they think they know the content

If the piece  of communication is short, like a webpage or a letter, users who think they know the content already will typically skim-read it using the headings as navigation. When faced with a longer document or page about something seemingly familiar, many users do not read it all. For example, some users in one test avoided the section headed 'Important Information' because they assumed that was generic information that they seen before.

What to do: when telling new information to established users make sure that the first heading contains something new.

Lesson 2. Users skim read when they think no action is required

Our testing has shown that users are more likely to skim read when they believed that they did not need to act on the content. For example, more people read more of a letter about an ongoing claim than read a letter about a price rise that has already happened. Users in our tests who thought new information was important to them personally tried to read the content carefully word by word. 

What to do: do not bury important 'need to know' information in content where no action is required. 

Lesson 3. Users stop reading when the effort is greater than the reward

When they come across words they do not understand, or complex sentences that take effort to unravel, users stop reading even if the information is important to them. We have seen many new investors stop reading about investment risk when the content was written in a language that only experienced investors would understand.

What to do: When testing, make sure that your sample contains users with different levels of pre-existing knowledge.

Watch where users start reading and where they stop and in the interview afterwards, ask why.

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