I used to think my aging eyes were the brutal culprit of my difficulty reading on screen. Now I realize certain design decisions can cause this. Factors such as font size, font style, column width, and paragraph length affect online content readability. This understanding explains why certain websites are a breeze to read (such as the Atlantic and Medium), and others are more difficult. Below, I’ll share some personal experiences of good and bad online readability based on the aforementioned factors.
As an ex-pat living abroad, I find myself on Culture Trip quite frequently. The website offers heaps of great recommendations for me to explore in Shanghai. I especially love the site structure on the desktop—content is presented on the left-hand side of the screen, and an interactive map on the right. I can simultaneously learn about new places and find their geographic location in the city. The content is great too. The text width and font size are comfortable to read, and plenty of contrast exists between foreground and background colors. From content to readability, this site gets it.
Another website that is easy on the eyes is The Conversation. Personally, I enjoy reading serifs, so the body copy font used here works for me. The font size is very comfortable and requires zero squinting from my eyes. I never lose my place because the columns are a comfortable width and the paragraphs are short. The white space surrounding the paragraphs helps me focus on the content with zero distraction.
The Not So Good
As I learn more about online readability, I can recognize bad instances more clearly. I just came across one the other day while reading an article from GQ. The font size was so small that for a moment, I had the laptop pulled right up to my eyes. The paragraphs were also a tad wide—and when I zoomed in for better readability, they began to feel too long to follow along. These design issues discouraged me enough that I eventually abandoned reading the article altogether. It’s a shame because the article seemed to be well written.
Although these issues may not seem as glaring as more obvious instances of bad readability, I use them to emphasize their impact on user experience. Even when content quality is high, the tiniest issues to readability can push readers away. Many people proclaim that “content is king,” but perhaps only readable content can own the throne.