The Readability Consortium's lessons for marketing content

The University of Central Florida, Adobe and Google band together to study digital readability. Those who create marketing content can get an edge if they pay close attention.

The content we consume on our devices, a lot of the time, sucks. It's hard to read. Trashy layouts smashed together. Fonts chosen by people with really bad taste. Code that renders text unreadable.

All of these sabotage the messages digital content contains, especially on mobile touchscreen devices. Marketing content is no exception.

If there only were a way to clear all this up and look at just the text. Back in 2010, Apple's Safari browser added a primitive tool: Reader View, also called Reader Mode. It reduces the noise somewhat on webpages and offers text magnification and alternate fonts.

University of Central Florida (UCF) researchers studying the readability of digital content have found that people need a lot more than that. Their findings point to a single principle over and over again: When individuals can format the content their way, they read faster, regardless of reading ability.

That has led to new ways of measuring how people read digital content and exploring how different fonts and formats improve the way each person reads.

Eventually, with a combination of machine intelligence, psychology and vision science, the group hopes to create technology to automatically generate individual content-formatting "prescriptions" -- in the form of personal tokens -- for everyone to optimize their reading experience. You can take their Virtual Readability Lab test to learn more about what fonts and formatting help you read better.

"We really formed around some very interesting findings [about] moving information to individuals with as little friction as possible, which is kind of what content is all about," said Ben Sawyer, an assistant professor in UCF's Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems and director of the Readability Consortium, a group working on readability research and, eventually, open source tools for digital content and Web 3.0.

"You have a set of ideas, and you want to move that into many, many minds," Sawyer said. "And you want people to actually engage with that content, be able to understand it and weave it into all the things they're doing in their lives."

Auto-detected reading customization assisted by AI and eyeball-tracking technology will likely take years to develop. It might never move from the realm of the theoretical into actual tech embedded on our phones, tablets and laptops. While The Readability Consortium's research aims to enhance reading for all readers, a surrounding community of scientists -- the readability research community -- also plans to examine how formatting can improve reading for individuals with dyslexia and learning difficulties, as well as non-native English speakers.

But there are takeaways for marketing content creators who seek an edge over their rivals.

Adobe, Google contribute to the project

The Readability Consortium is channel-agnostic, funded by its members' dues. Of course, right now web content and PDF documents make up the bulk of digital content we read. So, when Adobe and Google joined the project, things got a lot more interesting.

Adobe Liquid Mode example screenshot
Adobe Liquid Mode, which reflows PDFs to make them more readable on mobile touchscreen devices, brought UCF readability researchers and Big Tech together.

Adobe and Sawyer's team connected while Adobe was developing Liquid Mode, which it eventually released in 2020. The feature addressed a longtime problem for PDFs: They are static files that don't reflow on mobile devices. Most require a lot of pinching and finger-spreading gestures to zoom in and out, which makes them difficult -- sometimes impossible -- to read. Liquid Mode not only reflows content, but enables line-spacing, letter-spacing and zoom settings. It also makes tables and graphics responsive, and keeps the document table of contents accessible for faster navigation.

Those features dovetailed with UCF's research on how different people can read better -- and faster -- when text is custom formatted to their own preferences.

Google joined the Readability Consortium earlier this year. Its Material You content customization project and Google Fonts team were separately working toward better understanding of what makes web content more readable.

"We're pretty convinced this is going to work once we figure out how to implement it," said Rick Treitman, entrepreneur in residence for Adobe Document Cloud. "That's why we need to do the research. But we need to do it across all digital surfaces."

Adobe really only affects PDF. A consortium would help Adobe scale the implementation beyond PDF content, Treitman said.

Takeaways for marketers

The Readability Consortium continues to examine how people in diverse demographics read content differently, which means that marketers will eventually be able to understand, for example, how to format content better for people in different age groups.

Its research also divides content types into three groups, which Treitman describes as "glanceable," or quick looks at content; "interlude" reading that involves longer pauses, such as killing time at the bus stop; and long-form content.

"We read differently when we do those things," Treitman said.

Pilot results from the consortium's founding member Readability Matters suggest that reading comprehension may be enhanced for children by manipulating the format of the text. There were no consistent settings that improved it for everyone, which reinforces the thesis that it's the personalization that makes the difference. Different people read differently.

If reading was like running, there would be people who ran at 1 mile an hour and at 40 miles an hour.
Ben SawyerAssistant professor at UCF and director of the Readability Consortium

Marketers need to think about their content as teaching tools, Sawyer said. A failure to teach a prospective customer about their products or services is a failure to demonstrate the opportunity that whatever they're selling can benefit the customer's work or personal life.

Another mistake marketers make is to think about design and comprehension as the same thing, when in reality they are two separate spheres of influence. Beautiful content that is difficult to understand -- or easy-to-understand content that is just not attractive -- won't engage customers.

Finally, he said simplifying content might be the way to reach larger audiences. Between the amount of digital noise Americans must endure and the differing abilities of individual readers, too-complex content tends to get lost.

"If you have wonderful content -- even if that content can be understood and is beautiful -- you're competing with a lot of other streams of content," Sawyer said. "You forget what a huge spread there is of reading ability in the population. If reading was like running, there would be people who ran at 1 mile an hour and at 40 miles an hour."

Taking out the digital trash

I like to think of Safari's Reader Mode as the way to "take out the trash" on my touchscreens. Reader Mode typically involves removing ads and marketing content superimposed over the content I'd wanted to read when I clicked on a webpage. It works. It's basic. It's sort of a pre-1.0 version of what the Readability Consortium is aiming for. Adobe's Liquid Mode is great, but way overdue considering the iPhone was released in 2007.

Adobe Liquid Mode settings screenshot
Adobe Liquid Mode settings include custom line spacing and letter spacing.

If this public-private consortium of reading academics and Big Tech movers and shakers can do that for all digital content -- not just webpages -- the quality of our digital lives would greatly improve. Help us take out the trash, please.

Of course, this poses a challenge to marketers. It will force them to think differently and create content roadmaps that accommodate better, individualized formatting. One could envision a world where marketing content is more effective when it isn't so pervasive, long-winded and headache-inducing -- and is shaped by increasingly sophisticated customer data platforms and personalization engines.

Forward-thinking marketers who want to come out ahead will follow the Readability Consortium's work as it uncovers more truths about how we read. These marketers will get an advantage to make content more effective. They will be able to strategize how to engage customers in a future where the reader has more control over how their marketing content looks on the screen. I believe that is coming.

Treitman pointed out that it's already happening for all content, not just from marketers.

"Forget readability, freedom or this readability initiative," Treitman said. "Even before we started, if there's a book that I want to read, I have quite a bit of choice over how I'm going to consume it: I can get the dead-tree version, I can read it on my Kindle, I can listen to it in Audible. Once I put it on my Kindle, I can choose one of six fonts.

"We do have quite a bit of choice of how we consume text today, but I think it's going to get more and more individualized. As it does, it can get better for each reader," he said.

Marketers who don't plan for this will risk communicating via the same old marketing content strategies that -- in our noisy digital lives -- get measurably less comprehensible by the day.

Don Fluckinger covers enterprise content management, CRM, marketing automation, e-commerce, customer service and enabling technologies for TechTarget.

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