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Getting The Text Appearance Correct On A Webpage

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Author: Rhys Jones

There is a large body of research evidence on how text should be displayed on websites. Unfortunately a large number of web designers seem to have an uncanny knack of ignoring the recommendations from professionals who have undertaken extensive research into web accessibility. In order to ensure a websites accessibility for users is optimised there are numerous simple techniques that should be employed.

Firstly the text on the website should utilize familiar fonts such as Times New Roman or Georgia (serif fonts), or Arial, Helvetica, or Verdana (sans serif fonts), with a size no smaller that 12pt. The reasoning behind this is that it is harder and slower to read text which uses an unfamiliar font. Moving below 12pt for the text on a a web page results in slower performance, going below 9pt is one sure way of getting users to leave your website for good. Also consider your target audience. If the users may be over 65 then consider upping the font size to 14pt. Also be aware that whilst the font may appear acceptable on your browser on your PC, it might be completely unacceptable on someone else's browser on a different platform, e.g. a Mac.

Next the contrast between the text and the background should be as high as possible, again to improve the legibility. The ultimate contrast of course being white text on a black background or black text on a white background. Believe it or not, people read high contrast text up to 32% faster than low contrast text, or text on a patterned background. Whilst on the subject of background colours, these can be effectively used to help group together items of related information. Using 'mixed-case' fonts for reading prose text means that most letters will be lower-case, with all letters that should be capitalized being in upper-case. Most users have had considerable experience reading lower-case letters and are therefore will prove to be very proficient at it.

Throughout the website the styles used for main headings, subheadings, lists, paragraphs and the like should be consistent. If you have items such as phone numbers, postcodes or times, make sure that these are in a format that is common. Certain of these items will depend on the geographical area of the users. Attention grabbing items, such as animations should be used sparingly. Whilst a nice animated banner may grab someone's attention, ask yourself if this is detracting from what you want the user of the site to do next. Movement such as animation is one of the most effective attention-grabbing item. Researchers have found that people cannot stop themselves from initially looking at moving items on a web page. Be warned however, if the movement is not relevant or useful, it may (will?) annoy the user. If the movement continues after attracting attention, it may distract from the information on the Web site. How many times have you started to read the text on a web page only to discover that you end up being distracted by that advert on the side of the page. Advertisers know the power of animated adverts!

Returning to consistency of a whole website, two research based studies have found that the number of errors made by website users using visually inconsistent displays is reliably higher than when using visually consistent displays. Visual consistency in this case includes amongst other items the size and spacing of characters on the web page; the colours used for labels, fonts and backgrounds; and the locations of labels, text and images. Earlier research studies have found that tasks performed on more consistent interfaces resulted in (1) a reduction in task completion times; (2) a reduction in errors; (3) an increase in user satisfaction; and (4) a reduction in learning time. For many websites it can be seen that this will increase the sites popularity, increase the number of repeat visits and reduce the bounce rate. Remember that consistency here not only refers to pages within a single website, but where items are placed generally. Only a fool would place a navigation menu on the bottom right of a web page - most people look top and left, and that is where you should place it, otherwise the user just might hit their back button and move to a different site.

If you and your web designer follow these basic guidelines then you are on your way to creating a highly usable, and therefore popular, website.

About the author: Rhys is a webdeveloper who has previously taught Human Computer Interaction at University level.

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