Looking back on an expert’s claim that website usability testing proved promotional language imposes a cognitive burden
It’s nearly a decade now since website usability expert Dr. Jakob Nielsen proclaimed that “that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.”
“Users detested ‘marketese’—the promotional writing style with boastful subjective claims,” said Dr. Nielsen in 1997.
His study of website usability found that promotional language “imposes a cognitive burden on users who have to spend resources on filtering out the hyperbole to get to the facts.”
Website usability increases 124 percent, according to his measurements, when the writing style is concise, scannable, and objective.
Dr. Nielsen’s decade-old website usability study measured task time, errors, memory, time to recall site structure, and subjective satisfaction.
Dr. Nielsen’s website usability study conclusions
If a webpage is long, difficult to read, or contains hype, web users are more likely to click away.
The 10-year-old website usability study suggested:
- Keep text short and concise.
- Break up long copy with bullets.
- Use subheads to highlight significant text elements.
Fair enough. But:
- Avoid subjective, boastful, or exaggerated language.
That really flies in the face of a decades old copywriter’s bromide, “The more you tell, the more you sell.”
Aren’t there other studies that prove long copy still works?
My favorite website usability test and conclusions
I agree that website usability testing can help us understand how to get our web pages and email messages read.
The ever-increasing glut of information—on the Internet and elsewhere—has increased competition for our reader’s attention.
But hype, exaggeration, and subjective, boastful language may or may not impose a cognitive burden on the user. Here’s why:
- Words drive the brain.
- Sometimes more is less.
- Sometimes more is more.
As for “hype, exaggeration, and subjective, boastful language,” I believe that a sales letter can never be too long, it can only be too boring.
Know this: There is another type of website usability testing, and it doesn’t involve eye-tracking research.
My favorite website usability testing is measured at the end of a brilliant sales letter landing page—when the user clicks on an order button and buys the product.
What counts most are sales, not eye movements.
My conclusion: The value of great copywriting (and great copywriters) is immeasurable.