People don’t read online. You’ve probably heard it before and here I am, saying it again. And you’ve probably have difficulty applying that wisdom to your site or app because what are you supposed to do about it? Your organization has things your users need to know, you need to communicate that information in words, so people will need to read those words, right?


“People don’t read online,” although true, is an incomplete thought. People still rely heavily on words. Surely articles, essays, and posts are destinations in themselves. One can’t digest them without reading. I give you that one. The end goal there is to read. But beyond article content, digital products are filled with words. And people don’t read those words the way they’d read a book or an article. Instead, they use those words to do something.

Online, content is something users do. They use your words to navigate, fill out forms, understand errors, find answers to questions, and to take those final actions that turn their interactions into conversions or leads for your organization. It’s critical for your business that they can do these things easily.

And yet, it’s incredible – most online content is dauntingly long, chock-full of internal blabber, and ridiculously hard to do anything with at all.

That’s because too many organizations still see content as something people read. Their bloated, exposition-heavy sites and apps show it, as do their low numbers for online engagement.

Sorry to say, I’m almost certainly talking about your organization’s site or app, too.

Asking People to Read is a Business Killer
When you ask users to read paragraphs of content just to interact with your site or app on a basic level, you’re asking them to do extra work. But they didn’t come to your site to work. So instead of reading your bulky, wordy content, they might:

  • Ignore your sentences and miss important information or actions.
  • Fail to complete a vital form.
  • Give up rather than read and call your support team for help.
  • Get frustrated and go to your competitor instead.
  • Do whatever they can to not interact with your site or app (or maybe even your company) ever again.

Not good, not good at all.

A Note About Online Content and Self-Delusion
Don’t fool yourself into thinking wordiness isn’t affecting your business. It’s a common pitfall to think that your content is so well-written or engaging that users will read it no matter what. Your content, you might think, will surely be read.It won’t. Even if the best author ever wrote your content, your users still didn’t come to your site or app to read. They came to get something done.

Recognizing Reading Content vs. Doing Content
So how do you fix it? First you must recognize content that asks your users to read instead of allowing them to do. Take a look at your site or app and raise up a red flag if you see:

  • Paragraphs – anything longer than three lines counts. (Doesn’t apply to blogs and articles.)
  • A sea of text without headings to break up sections or topics.
  • Gratuitous use of intro or marketing sentences below main page titles.
  • Unnecessary or redundant information.
  • Copious and verbose “Help” sections.
  • Extra screens that have nothing to do with why people come to your site or app. (Pro tip: These are often found in “About” sections.)
  • Main actions, forms, or functions hidden at or near the bottom of the screen.
  • Major actions buried in the middle of sentences (or even paragraphs!).
  • Use of jargon or internal language (when your audience is not your internal team).
  • Any of these forbidden words in navigation, titles, subtitles, or callouts.
  • Lengthy explanations for confusing layouts, forms, or interactions.
  • Copy that explains how a piece of design or functionality works.
  • Words whose sole purpose is to fill space to keep a layout from looking empty.

These content barriers keep your users from easily interacting with your business. All of them have to go. There is no room for negotiation.

Content That Helps People Do Things
Fortunately, you can shift your content focus from reading to doing. I’m not promising it won’t be a painful. You will need to pass ruthless judgement on every piece of your content. If you’re brave enough, follow these steps and watch wonders happen:

  1. Cut 90 percent of your content.
    I’m serious. First, you need to remove 90 percent or more of your current content. That probably sounds like a lot. That’s because it is. But it will markedly improve your site or app. Obliterate whole paragraphs. Say in five words what you’re currently saying in fifty. Remove entire pages, especially from your “About” section.

    Consider every word and section in this way: Can I do anything with this? Can our customers use it to complete a task? Is it helping people take an action? If the answer is no – or even not really – chuck it and never look back.

  2. Create strong, meaningful headings.
    Organize your remaining content with clear, concise headings. Be straightforward, not clever. Call things what they are in as few words as possible. If your users can understand the entire page without ever stopping to read, you’re doing it exactly right.
  3. Prioritize actions.
    Your users came to your site or app to do something, so let them see what they can do. Your content should make actions impossible to miss. Keep action text short, specific, and prominent. If anyone has to read to find an action, it’s time to cut more words.
  4. Test on small screens.
    Get on a phone or tablet and take a look at your text again. It’s amazing how just a few words feel like Shakespeare’s collected works on a small device. If you’re getting that bard-like feeling looking at your content on a mobile device, cut and condense some more.
  5. Keep it under control.
    Never again allow a paragraph or unnecessary content to infiltrate your site or app. Help your team continue to go in the direction of culling and refining content. Stay away from the temptation to add it all back.

People come to your site or app to get something done, so let them.
Don’t spend a single second grieving the words you lose. The less your current and potential customers have to read to get things done, the easier it will be for them to do business with you. And that is the goal. You don’t need people to read your site. You need them to be able to use it.


About truematter

Our team has been doing the real work of user experience since the earliest days of the commercial web. We’re out to make your digital products a whole lot better.

Yes, we will cut 90% or more of your content. Yes, it will be scary. And yes, your users and your business numbers will thank you for it.

Author: @baileysendsword
Graphic: @djosephmachado
Editor: @ExperienceDean