Readability: A quick bit of research on legal websites

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have been looking at access to justice through technology with my masters students recently. One of the things that arose was how badly some website designs can be. Basic things like too much text, and unfortunate reliance on PDFs and poor visual schema came to mind.

In a slightly different context, Jon Harman reminded me about readability scores (something which occurred in Avrom Sherr’s work on lawyer interviewing back in the 1980s). Jon pointed towards a website where you can easily do readability tests on webpages. The site also has a bookmarklet which enables you to do this very quickly.  The site is here:

http://read-able.com/

It is a great tool.

I very quickly did an experiment to look at a few websites. So, in the context of information for the public, I looked at a handful of websites dealing with debt advice: the money advice service, the national debt line and advice guides UK. I tried, albeit rather quickly, to find a comparable webpage where a user was directed to help on debt problems or similar. The test provides a range of different statistics on readability including a notional indication of the youngest age groups that can “easily read” a particular page or site. Advice guide UK did well on my (not very scientific) test, potentially reaching an age group as low as 11 to 12 years. The national debt helpline text would reach 13 to 14 year olds and the money advice service only 17 to 18 years or older. My recollection is that some trade unions aim their written material at a reading age of around 11 to 12, possibly younger. That may serve as a rough benchmark for what might be desirable.

I did a similar test on legalcheek, legalfutures and my own blog. Legal cheek came out top (11 to 12 years), legal futures 14 to 15 years and I propped up the table at 15 to 16 years.  I resist the urge to make a joke about legalcheek’s readership, because that is the kind of thing for which Alex Aldridge would exact an unpleasant – but likely entertaining – revenge.  Clearly I have some way to go to write as clearly incomprehensibly as our friends in journalism.

Interestingly, I also did readability test on the Excalibur case which one of my blog posts in the test looks at. The readability threshold there was 17 to 18 years. Of course, readability is a proxy based on the characteristics of language. It does not mean a particular piece of text and the concept use is easily comprehended by particular age group.

Finally, I looked at a web page on how to make a complaint from the Legal Ombudsman, the Bar Standards Board and the SRA respectively. Again, not a scientific test, but an interesting indication. The Legal Ombudsman had the best readability score, 11 to 12 years; the SRA 15 to 16 years; and, the Bar Standards Board 16 to 17 years. I picked these pages because they were the ones which might most be expected to be designed with members of the public in mind.

Of course, readability alone is not enough. Information has to be informative and reliable. It also needs to be suitably comprehensive. Conversely, unreadable information is (for the groups that cannot read it) literally useless.  What I’ve done is some very rough and ready testing but it provides (I hope) interesting indications of work that may need to be done by many of us who want to better communicate.

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About Richard Moorhead

Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law and Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at the Faculty of Laws, University College London with an interest in teaching and research on the legal ethics, the professions, legal aid, access to justice and the courts.
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5 Responses to Readability: A quick bit of research on legal websites

  1. Pete Smith says:

    My blog and the LawSync site should be readable for 15-16 year olds…

  2. botzarelli says:

    Interesting – I had a little play with the tool on my blog. It came out with a reading age of 14-15 for pieces I’ve written on legal matters with a political slant and 12-13 when I write about football or holidays. The most technical legal piece I’ve written (http://botzarelli.wordpress.com/2012/07/02/a-frauds-a-fraud-isnt-it/) had a score of 17-18.

  3. Michael Reed says:

    I think you’ll have a lot of us taking the opportunity to navel gaze about our blogs in your comments. ;->

    Interestingly, etclaims.co.uk, in large part aimed at litigants in person, can apparently be easily understood by 15-16 year olds. But workingtheory.co.uk, which I write primarily for lawyers and policy people, can be easily understood by 14 to 15 year olds.

    I’m sure this means something, but I lack the perspicacity to fully grock it.

  4. gexall says:

    Thanks for that.I did the test. My blog (aimed at civil litigators) has an average grade level of 7. It should be understood by most 12 – 13 year olds.

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