File Under: UI/UX

Design for Readability First

Safari 5′s seemingly innocuous new Reader feature, which isolates the text on a webpage making it easier to read, has sparked a surprising amount of outrage from web publishers who think Apple is trying to squash online advertisements and attack their livelihood.

But there’s been an equally distinctive and vocal reaction from readers, one that can be summed up quite simply: “Thank you.”

Similar tools have been around for eons, starting with the “Print this page” link of the last century, all the way up to tools like Readability, whose code Apple borrowed for its browser. But the advent of Safari Reader seems to have galvanized a point of view that’s been brewing for a while: Webpages are too cluttered and difficult to read.

So publishers, listen up. Your readers, the people you depend on to reach your bottom line, have something to say. It’s a pretty simple message: Your webpages are hostile to reading. It’s time to start paying much closer attention to the design of your pages — not just to reduce clutter and make everything easier to read, but to make sure your text maintains that readability across the broad range of screen sizes, devices and browser configurations people are using today.

It’s telling that Apple, a company with a history of only adding the most-needed features to its products, decided its browser would benefit from a tool that strips away the clutter on a page. Of course, one could make the argument that Reader is simply a subtle attempt to drive publishers toward Apple’s iOS platform, where you can create apps filled with iAds that can’t be removed. However, it would be a shame if that’s the only message publishers took from Safari’s Reader. After all, Reader is not an ad blocker, and given that there are ad blockers available for every browser, Reader is hardly a new threat. Reader is only presented as an option after the page has loaded, the ads have been displayed and impressions (i.e., the money part) have been registered.

The message of Reader (and tools of its ilk) isn’t that the online publishing model is doomed, but that it desperately needs a reboot to get rid of all the junk that’s clogging up the whole point of the system: connecting readers with the information they want.

Savvy publishers have an inkling that something is wrong. The popular British news site The Guardian, for one. The Guardian notes in its review of Safari 5′s Reader feature, “technologies like Safari Reader sound a salutary warning to media companies and advertisers…. From now on, we must love our readers or die.”

But The Guardian is putting its money where it’s mouth is. The site recently launched its Open Content Platform, complete with a Content API which allows anyone to grab an article from The Guardian and use it how they see fit — within the guidelines of The Guardian‘s terms of service.

One of the best creations to come out of The Guardian‘s new API is Phil Gyford’s Today’s Guardian.

The primary purpose of Today’s Guardian is to make reading news articles easier. For Gyford, that means eliminating distractions — sidebars are gone, comments zapped, menus pared down and page navigation radically simplified. We take issue with the removal of comments, but in short, it’s The Guardian redesigned with ease of reading as the primary goal.

As Gyford notes in his overview, it’s “a shame that such tools are even necessary … if you were creating a site whose purpose is to provide articles to read, wouldn’t you want to make it perform that task really well?”

If you’re wondering what makes a more readable design, read through Gyford’s post first. Also check out Mandy Brown’s In Defense of Readers on A List Apart. It’s filled with excellent advice on what to think about when designing a reader-friendly layout. (She’s the creative director at Etsy.)

“Limit distractions to the full extent possible,” Brown writes. Pull quotes are great, she says, as long as they’re near the top of an article where they can draw a reader in. But they become distracting farther down. She also advises on white space, typographic treatments, and where best to place your visual distractions so you don’t foul up the reading experience (the top and the bottom).

Brown’s own site, A Working Library is an exemplar of usability. Load it in Safari Reader and the only things that are removed are the header and footer.

A clean page layout falls apart when the proper attention isn’t paid to typography, and in that department, Blaine Cook has some homework for you. He gives you a way to calculate the proper text size mathematically by sizing all of your text in ems. This makes it much easier to find the proper pairing of column width and text size, giving your readers an easier time no matter what resolution, browser, or device they’re using.

He points to two useful tools: his own RePublish, which helps solve font-size issues across multiple screen resolutions, and Mathias Nater’s Hyphenator.js, a JavaScript library that intelligently reflows your text with clean hyphenation so you can run justified columns.

Cook’s methods will “make your site look amazing on the shiny new devices,” he says, but they will also improve readability in a good old-fashioned desktop web browser. On that note, he warns against the common practice of designing different layouts and serving different stylesheets for different-size screens.

“You shouldn’t be optimizing for iPads,” Cook writes. “Or iPhones. Or iPhone 4Gs. Or Nexus Ones. Or 30-inch 90ppi screens, or 30-inch 300ppi screens. You should be optimizing for reading experience, and you should be using the best techniques available to do so.”

Advice? Links we should see? Put them in the comments below.

See Also:

Photo: Vlasta2/Flickr/CC