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U.S. Department of Health and Health Services
Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
Health Literacy Online: A Guide to Writing and Designing Easy-to-Use Health Web Sites
Display Content Clearly on the Page

The Basics

Writing easy-to-read Web content is only the first step. If you want people to understand the content, the next step is to make it look easy to read.

Even health content written in plain language can look overwhelming if too much text is together in one paragraph or if there is not enough space on the page.4,7,15,18

Web design and content go hand in hand. Use white space (also called active or blank space), layout, font, and color to help users understand the content on your Web site.

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3.1. Limit paragraph size. Use bullets and short lists.

All of the following triggered Web users with limited literacy skills to skip over content:

  • Dense "walls" of text
  • Long sentences
  • Paragraphs with multiple numbers in the text
  • Long words
  • Paragraphs with more than three lines4,7,11

Write for users' limited working memory. Use clear, stand-alone sections or "chunks" of text.

  • Use small chunks of text with lots of headings.7,13
  • Turn sentences into lists.7,13
Exhibit 6

Exhibit 6. Caption follows.

Compare these two Web pages from Testing showed that users did not read Version 1, where information was presented in paragraphs of text. However, Web users did read Version 2, where information was presented in bulleted lists and smaller "chunks" of text.

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3.2. Use meaningful headings.

As people scan your Web page, they often will read only the headings to determine whether the health content is relevant to them. It is important to make your headings as specific as possible.7,13

  • Create a subheading, or "teaser" text, underneath each heading to give the user additional clues.


Main heading: Get Active

Subheading: Aim for 2 hours and 30 minutes of activity a week.

In the example above, both the heading and the subheading start with verbs. This is a good practice to follow when you are writing actionable content.

Try it icon

When appropriate, try using questions as headings.7 Use "I" and "me" to reflect the voice of the user.

For example, when discussing mammograms, common questions include:

  • How will this benefit me?
  • How much does it cost?
  • What happens if the doctor finds something wrong?
  • How often do I need to get tested?
  • Does it hurt?
  • Are there any risks associated with the test?
  • What if I don't have time?

Make sure your headings don't "float" on the page. There should be more space above a heading than between the heading and the text that follows.7 The goal is to create discrete chunks of content that comprise a heading and related text or bullets.

On this Web page, information about osteoporosis is organized using questions as headings. There is more space before the heading than after, creating clear "chunks" of text.

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3.3. Use a familiar font in at least 12-point type.

There are two categories of fonts: serif (with "arms and feet") and sans serif (without "arms and feet").


  • Arial is a sans serif font.
  • Times New Roman is a serif font.

There has been much debate about whether serif or sans serif fonts are easier to read online. Most usability and literacy experts recommend using sans serif fonts such as Arial or Tahoma.3,7 Because sans serif fonts are commonly used on the Web, they are more familiar to users.

Pay attention to font size. A small font size is more difficult to read, especially for users with limited literacy skills and older adults.

  • Use at least a 12-point font. If many of your users are older adults, consider using a 14-point font.3,7,8

I could read the words without my reading glasses.

  • Let users adjust the size of the text on the page.7 Web designers can enable this feature by using relative type size. However, it's important to test out your Web page with different font sizes to make sure it's still easy to read and navigate.
Exhibit 8

Exhibit 8. Caption follows.

NIH SeniorHealth includes a toolbar on every page that lets users change the text size, adjust color contrast (colored text on a black background), and activate a screen reader that reads aloud the text on the page.

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3.4. Use white space and avoid clutter.

Clean, crisp Web pages are easier to read.7,13 They are also less distracting and less overwhelming for people with limited literacy skills.

  • Use white space inside your main content area to break pieces of information into chunks. Leave space between sections of text and around images and buttons.

This page from NIH SeniorHealth includes space around the image and "Next Page" button, which helps the site look clean and uncluttered.

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3.5. Keep content in the center of the screen and above the fold.6,7,13

Many users with limited literacy skills don't scroll. This means they are only seeing the content in the center of their screen.4,5,15,18,20

  • Make an effort to keep text above the fold. "Above the fold" means that the text can be read without scrolling down. If you need to continue text below the fold, provide strong visual cues to prompt users to scroll down the page for more information.

Try it icon

View your Web site using different monitors and browsers to see how your content displays on the screen.

Caution: Horizontal lines or large sections of white space at the bottom of the screen are sometimes mistaken for "false bottoms" and stop people from reading further.7

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3.6. Label links clearly.

Users with limited literacy skills tend to click on links rather than read the content on a page; this is sometimes called "link hopping."4

Link directly to tools and resources that supplement and support your text.16,34 Avoid linking to pages with redundant content. Instead, allow users to "drill down" for more detailed information.12,16,34

  • Limit the number of links on a page.

Here are four rules to follow when including links on a Web page:

  1. Make links obvious by underlining them.3,13
  2. Make links long enough to "grab" easily.3,7
  3. Use descriptive link labels so there are no surprises.7,13
  4. Use action verbs in link titles.3,7


Instead of: Visit this Web site to search for heart-healthy recipes.

Try: Find heart-healthy recipes your whole family will enjoy.

Links on this Web page follow all four rules for link labeling. For each link, readers have a good idea of what to expect. Avoid these link labels:

  • Click here
  • Print
  • Learn more

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3.7. Use images that facilitate learning.

Including pictures along with written text can help users with limited literacy skills find, understand, communicate, and use health information. 16,17,42–44

This simple line drawing and caption from explain the location of the colon and rectum.

  • Use simple, realistic pictures to illustrate health behaviors and medical concepts.

Web users prefer photographs of "real" people rather than illustrations or people who look like models.15 However, when illustrating an anatomical or medical concept, simple line drawings are often most effective.42

  • Include a descriptive caption that explains the picture.42

Be sure your graphics support your text rather than detract from it. Busy, bright, or animated graphics are distracting and often mistaken for advertisements.21

  • Use alternative text (called an "alt tag" or "alt text") to describe graphics for people using screen readers.

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3.8. Use bold colors with contrast. Avoid dark backgrounds.

Black text on a white or very light background is the easiest to read.7,13 Keep the background clear (avoid patterns and images).

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3.9. Make your site accessible to people with disabilities.

All Federal Government Web sites must be accessible to people with disabilities. This is often called Section 508 compliance (referring to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act).45

Design a Web site that works for everyone. Here are a few of the important considerations addressed under Section 508:

  • Make sure screen readers and other software can read your site.
  • Choose strong color contrast, especially for buttons.
  • Test plug-ins and other software for accessibility.13

To learn more about accessibility, visit EXIT Disclaimer or

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Iterative Design Methods and Tips


  • Prototypes
  • Usability testing

Tips for designing and testing your Web site with users

  • Conduct user testing with paper or clickable prototypes. If you build a clickable prototype, gauge how much content can fit on a screen. Experiment with heading sizes, space, and color contrast.
  • If you are using a clickable prototype or developmental Web site for usability testing, be on the lookout for dense chunks of text that trigger skipping.
Icon for usability guidelines.

Refer to Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelines (PDF, 20.64 MB) sections:

3:1; 3:5; 6:1; 6:3; 6:5; 6:10; 6:11; 9:1; 9:2; 9:3; 9:4; 10:1; 10:3; 10:6; 10:9; 10:14; 11:1–8; 11:10; 11:11; 12:4; 14:8; 14:15; 14:16; 15:6; 16:2; 16:4; 16:6

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