Improving the usability and accessibility of a healthcare website by being mindful of reading level

Eric Bailey

Improving the reading level is often overlooked or downplayed as unglamorous work. Yet it is one of the most effective things you can do to make a product more usable.

Every product benefits from being easy to understand. Clear and concise language removes ambiguity. Less ambiguity means there’s less to think about when learning how to operate a website.

The healthcare industry in particular benefits from a considered reading level. With healthcare, it’s important to be as explicit as possible. It could quite literally be a life or death situation.

The client

We recently redesigned a website for caregivers. It helps provide resources and support for caretaking of family and loved ones. Here, we discovered that paying attention to reading level was especially important.

User testing taught us that many caretakers speak English as a second language. We also learned that many new caretakers were coming to the website in a charged emotional state.

This makes sense. Learning how to care for a loved one is a deeply personal act. It often requires the caretaker to reevaluate an existing relationship. Stress may alter a native English speaker’s ability to process information. This is to say nothing about significant changes to their lifestyle.

Knowing your audience is one thing. Meeting them where they are is another.

For the redesign, we paid special attention to the brevity and reading level of our content. Tools like Hemingway helped with this, as well as limiting the number of characters in some CMS input fields. We also stressed the importance of minding the reading level after we left.

Cognitive accessibility

Considerate and deliberate language choice is a central part of cognitive accessibility. This is an example of client needs indirectly touching on accessibility compliance.

It’s also a great demonstration how better accessibility efforts benefit everyone. Making content easier to understand increases the chances that everyone will be able to understand it. To quote GOV.UK’s Government Design Principles, we “do the hard work to make it simple.”

Don’t take my word for it. Following the relaunch, the site saw dramatic increases in:

  • Unique page views,
  • Returning users, and
  • Average time on site.

I don’t know about you, but those seem like some pretty good outcomes to me.