Thanks so much for the feedback about reading levels on the Web.
I'm currently reviewing an Internet site (the audience could be anyone and
everyone) that includes the word "missives" on its home page to describe a
site feature. Since I'm a post-graduate student and I still wasn't sure
what the term meant (shame on me), I thought maybe the site owner should
choose another word. Does anyone have any insights/experiences/references
they could share? How does one make sure he/she is writing to the right
reading level? What is the right level for a general Web audience? I've
heard that for newspapers its 8th grade. Is this true on the Web as well?
From Erik Ojakaar:
1) Identify your (website) audience.
2) Design to the least common denominator.
3) Test your prototype on a sample audience. Use tasks that test the
logic of your menu and link names.
We involve end users in the development of our homepage category names
and overall info architecture. Without doing this you (the designer)
will invariably make wrong assumptions about terminology your end users
From Shelly Gullikson:
I think it's important to distinguish between who the audience _could be_
and look at the audience the site's owners _want_. The audience for any
web site "could be anyone and everyone", but whose eyeballs is this site
after? (The use of "missives" suggests to me a super-cool/ironic or
highly politicized audience is sought.)
I think this has less to do with reading level than with using the "lingo"
of a specific audience group. I know what "missives" means, but as it's
not as much a part of my everyday use as, say, "letters" or
"communications" or "statements", seeing it used on a web site would
suggest to me that I'm not the target audience.
Anecdotally, I saw a multimedia production company's web site with a
button labelled "the dope" that led to information about the company. The
guys who ran the company were of the super-cool/ironic variety, but their
clientele was more conservative/corporate. In the latest version of
their site, "the dope" has been replaced by "about".
Probably not a lot of help, but my $0.02.
As for reading level of newspapers, I've only heard a Canadian example:
grade 3 for Toronto Sun (tabloid-style), grade 6 for Toronto Star (basic
local paper), and grade 9 for Globe and Mail (business-oriented national
From Alan Doerr:
I'm very interested to hear the results of this - I encounter the same
problem. We do a number of websites for colleges and universities, and they
often insist on using words that aren't very accessible or understood among
the target audience, which is generally older teenagers. For example, I've
found that the term "prospective students" isn't very well understood, and
that's exactly the link a prospective student needs to use.
I agree that missives is a term that should be used with caution on a
homepage - people just don't generally click on words they don't understand.
Can you support this with testing or by examining click-thru rates? Do
people actually click on missives? If you manage to standardize at a certain
reading level, let me know - I just generally have to use my best judgment
when it comes to writing content at an appropriate level.
From George Donahue:
Perhaps more to the point is the reading level of the expected users of the
site on which the high-falutin term "missives" appears. If it's post-grad
philologists, it'd be fine. One could design a test for such an issue, e.g.,
present representative users with various texts at differing degrees of
difficulty/grade level (using something as the Fogg index perhaps to rate
the particular texts) and see which level fares best. Of course, on the Web
there's more to it than that; we have evidence that people scan, rather than
read, on the Web.
I'd submit that the case for the appropriateness of "missives" (instead of
plain English "messages" or "letters") would be very hard to make for almost
every audience, unless the point was to be humorous or intentionally
Paul Thornton also sent me an attached file with a collection of search
results that she shared with a client. Based on what I've read so far, it
appears there are no established rules for reading levels on the Web.
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