3. Display Content Clearly on the Page


Writing easy-to-read web content is only the first step. If you want people to understand the content, it needs to look easy to read—both on desktop and on mobile.

Even health content written in plain language can look overwhelming if there’s too much text in a paragraph or not enough space on the page.7,24,35,49 And if your site doesn’t display or function well on mobile, users on mobile devices may give up before they even get to your content.

Web design and content go hand in hand. Use white space, layout, font, and color to help users understand the content on your website.

Try this

When developing your health content, imagine you’re writing for a mobile screen. This will naturally force you to take into account many of the best practices outlined in this section. By writing for a mobile display, your content will be simpler and easier to understand across all screen sizes.

3.1 Limit paragraph size. Use bullets and short lists.

It’s very important not to overwhelm your users with content regardless of screen size. These principles apply not only to mobile devices, but to desktops and laptops as well. All of the following can trigger 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 3 lines7,24,28

The takeaway here is that users will skip information that looks difficult to read regardless of how simply it’s written or how important it is.

Additionally, write for users’ limited working memory. Breaking up content into manageable “chunks” or bulleted or numbered lists can help. For example:

  • Use clear, stand-alone sections or “chunks” of text with headings.24,30,53
  • Make sure each chunk of text has only 1 theme or idea.54
  • Turn sentences into lists when possible.24,30
  • If your list has more than 7 items, break it up into several sub-lists.54
Figure 3.1

Compare these webpages from healthfinder.gov. Users are less likely to read content presented in long paragraphs of text, as in version 1. Version 2 is easier to read because it uses bulleted lists and smaller “chunks” of text.

Screen shot of healthfinder.gov 'Eat Healthy' topic

Source: http://healthfinder.gov/HealthTopics/Category/nutrition-and-physical-activity/nutrition/eat-healthy

3.2 Use meaningful headings.

When users scan webpages, they often only read the headings to figure out if the content is relevant to them. It’s important to make your headings as specific as possible24,30—try to include keywords to help users find the information they need.

Including keywords in headings also makes it more likely that search engines will show your content in search results. Search engines show sites where keywords appear in the web address, title, page headings, and links before they show websites with keywords that only appear in content.

Try this

Start headings with verbs when you can. This helps set you up to write actionable content.

Use subheadings.

Adding a subheading, or “teaser” text, underneath each heading can give the user additional clues about what to expect from your content.


Main heading: Get Active

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

Consider question headings.

When appropriate, try using questions as headings.24 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?

Place headings properly.

Make sure your headings don’t “float” on the page (floating happens when there’s too much white space above and below the heading). Make it clear which chunk of text the heading corresponds to—leave more space above a heading than between the heading and the text that comes after it.24

Figure 3.2

On this healthfinder.gov webpage, information about osteoporosis is organized using questions as headings. There’s more space before the heading than after, creating clear “chunks” of text.

Screen shot of the healthfinder.gov 'Get a Bone Density Test' topic

Source: http://healthfinder.gov/HealthTopics/Category/doctor-visits/screening-tests/get-a-bone-density-test#the-basics_2

3.3 Use a readable font that’s at least 16 pixels.

The font you choose is important because it affects your site’s readability. Below, we list the most important elements that contribute to making a font readable.


Choose a font that’s at least 16 pixels, or 12 points. If many of your users are older adults, consider using an even larger font size—19 pixels or 14 points.6,24 A small font size is more difficult to read, especially for users with limited literacy skills and older adults.


“I like when I can read the words without my reading glasses.”

Set up your site so that users can adjust the size of the text on the page.24 Web designers can make this possible by using what’s called relative type size. However, it’s still important to test out your website with different font sizes to make sure it’s still easy to read and navigate. Always check how your content looks on a mobile device, as well—newer, high-resolution screens that render more pixels per inch can make text look smaller.

Figure 3.3

NIH SeniorHealth includes a toolbar on every page that allows users to change text size and adjust color contrast (colored text on a black background).

Screen shot of the NIH Senior Health homepage

Source: http://nihseniorhealth.gov/ homepage


Unusual fonts with unnecessary flourishes can be hard to read. Choose a mainstream font that will feel familiar to your users.30

It’s easier to read text printed in simple, familiar fonts like Verdana.


Lucida Handwriting
“Regular physical activity is good for your health. Get tips to help you get more active.”

“Regular physical activity is good for your health. Get tips to help you get more active.”

Also, while you can use a different font for headings and body content, don’t use more than 3 fonts on a page. Use fewer, simpler fonts to make your page look more cohesive.55

Serif or sans serif?

There’s been a lot of debate about which type of font is easier to read online—and overall, the research is inconclusive.30,56 However, some evidence suggests that serif fonts may make reading on the web more difficult for users with reading disorders.56,57

The bottom line: Choosing sans serif fonts is best practice when writing for the web.24,57,58 Use a familiar sans serif font like Verdana, Lato, Open Sans, Proxima Nova, or Source Sans.

Line height

Line height (also called leading) is the vertical distance between lines of text. Common line heights in word processing include:

  • “Single spaced” (line height of 100%, equal to the font size)
  • 1.5 lines (line height of 150%, equal to 1.5 times the font size)
  • “Double spaced” (line height of 200%, twice the font size)

Some word processors—and many web design programs—will give you even more options.

To maximize readability, use a line height that is 130% to 150% larger than the font size.56 This helps keep users with limited literacy skills from losing their place in the text as they start reading a new line—and makes it easier for them to use their fingers to help keep their place.


It’s best to specify leading of about 140% (the middle option below).59

100% Leading
“Making small changes to your eating habits can make a big difference for your health. Here are some tips and tools you can use to get started.”

140% Leading
“Making small changes to your eating habits can make a big difference for your health. Here are some tips and tools you can use to get started.”

200% Leading
“Making small changes to your eating habits can make a big difference for your health. Here are some tips and tools you can use to get started.”

Line height is also an important consideration for mobile users. When paragraphs or bulleted lists include multiple links, extra height between lines helps ensure that users have enough room to tap the item they want.60

3.4 Use white space and avoid clutter.

Clean, uncluttered webpages are easier to read24,30—they’re less distracting and less overwhelming for everyone, especially people with limited literacy skills and very busy users.

Use white space in your content to break information into chunks. Leave space between sections of text and around images and buttons.

Figure 3.4

The CDC.gov homepage includes space around the logo and search box, and under the banner image, which helps the site look clean and uncluttered.

Screenshot of the cdc.gov homepage

Source: http://www.cdc.gov/ homepage

Figure 3.5

The health.gov homepage also has a very clean look with lots of white space.

Screenshot of the health.gov homepage

Source: http://www.health.gov

White space around site features also helps mobile users interact with buttons and links without accidentally tapping the wrong place.

3.5 Keep the most important content above the fold—even on mobile.24,30,61

Users spend the most time looking at content they see first,62 so make sure the most important and compelling content appears above the fold. Users also judge the content they can see to decide whether it’s worth scrolling down to see more.62

Figure 3.6

The most important content in this topic about getting tested for HIV is visible above the fold.

Screenshot of healthfinder.gov 'Get Tested for HIV' topic

Source: http://healthfinder.gov/HealthTopics/Category/health-conditions-and-diseases/hiv-and-other-stds/get-tested-for-hiv

Keep in mind that low literacy readers may have trouble with scrolling—eye-tracking data shows that the need to scroll makes it more likely that they’ll skip content as they try to find their place again to continue reading. That’s why it’s important to minimize scrolling when you can.63

If your content continues below the fold, the best cue to let users know they need to scroll down is a paragraph of text that crosses the scroll line.64 However, it’s very challenging to ensure that this will display consistently on different screen sizes—so you may want to consider using a scroll arrow or scroll bar instead.65

Try this

View your website using different monitors, browsers, and devices to see how your content displays on the screen.

Finally, be aware that users may mistake horizontal lines or large sections of white space at the bottom of their screen for the end of a webpage. That’s a good reason to look at your site on many devices and screen sizes. If you find either of these at the bottom of a page, consider making some changes—“false bottoms” might stop people from seeing all of your content.24

3.6 Use links effectively.

The ability to link to related content is a major benefit of writing for the web. Below, we list some strategies for using links effectively in your online health content.

Limit the number of links on a page.

Users with limited literacy skills sometimes click on links instead of reading content on a page.7 Limiting how many links you have on a page can help prevent too much “link hopping”.

Think about links as exit points—include them only in places where you really want your users to exit.

Link directly to tools and resources that support your content.28,40

Include links that allow users to “drill down” for more detailed information8,28,40—avoid linking to pages with redundant content.

Here are 3 rules to follow when writing links on a webpage:30

1. Make links long enough to “grab” easily.24,50 If your link is too short, it may be hard for users to tap or click on the right part of the screen to select the link.

2. Use descriptive link labels so there are no surprises.24,30 Descriptive link labels tell your user what to expect from a link. Users should never be surprised by what they find when they click on your link. They can also help users find the right content—and improve search engine rankings.

3. Use action verbs in link labels.8,24 Choose actionable link labels, like “Check out these tips for getting active,” “Find out how to eat healthy during pregnancy,” or “Read more about diabetes.” Action verbs help users engage with your content.

Figure 3.7

Links on this healthfinder.gov webpage follow all 3 rules for link labeling. Readers know what to expect when they click on each link.

Screenshot of healthfinder.gov 'Talk to your kids about tobacco, alcohol, and drugs' topic

Source: http://healthfinder.gov/HealthTopics/Category/parenting/healthy-communication-and-relationships/talk-to-your-kids-about-tobacco-alcohol-and-drugs#take-action_4

Never use general link labels—they don’t help people know what to expect. For example, avoid the following link labels:

  • Click here
  • Print
  • Learn more

3.7 Use color or underline to identify links.

Display links so users will easily recognize them as clickable—and stay consistent with presentation throughout your site.66

To follow established guidelines for displaying links:

  • Use blue for unvisited links and purple for visited links unless you have a reason to choose different colors.
  • Test your color choice to make sure it stands out from the body text—and that it’s visible to people who are color blind.50
  • Underline links in main content areas—users still recognize underlined content as a hyperlink indicator (especially users with low vision or other accessibility issues).67
  • Don’t underline items like navigation menus if their location makes it clear that they’re links.50
Figure 3.8

NIH Senior Health uses standard link guidelines—blue and underlined for unvisited links, and purple for visited links.

Screenshot of NIH Senior Health Alzheimers care website with one visited hyperlink

Source: http://nihseniorhealth.gov/alzheimerscare/afterthediagnosis/01.html

3.8 Use images that help people learn.

Including simple visuals to support written text can help users with limited literacy skills find, understand, communicate, and use health information.30,38,65,68,69

Choose images that support your text.

Think of graphics as a way to enhance and explain your content, not as decorations. Also look out for visuals that might actually diminish your content—busy, bright, or animated graphics are distracting and often mistaken for advertisements.41

Choose realistic images.

Use realistic pictures to illustrate health behaviors and clarify medical concepts. Users prefer photographs of “real” people rather than illustrations or people who look like models.49 It’s also important to show people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. That way, more people will be able to find “themselves” on your site—and more easily relate to your content.

Keep in mind that people react strongly to images, so be sure to test your site with images included. Pay attention to users’ reactions to the images—they may surprise you.

Try this

When illustrating an anatomical or medical concept, consider a simple line drawing—they’re often most effective.67

Figure 3.9

This simple line drawing and labels from CDC.gov explain the location of the colon and rectum.

Screenshot of cdc.gov colorectal cancer topic with image of colon and rectum

Source: http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/colorectal/basic_info/what-is-colorectal-cancer.htm

Make sure the meaning of your image is clear to all users.

Always include a descriptive caption that explains the picture.67 Use alternative text (called an “alt tag” or “alt text”) to describe graphics for people using screen readers.

3.9 Use appropriate contrast.

Dark text on a white or very light background is the easiest to read.24,30 Use reversed-out text (dark backgrounds with light text) sparingly. It’s also important to keep the background clear, so avoid patterns and images.

Good contrast:
Arteries are the tubes that carry blood away from your heart. Every time your heart beats, it pumps blood through your arteries to the rest of your body.
Bad contrast:
Arteries are the tubes that carry blood away from your heart. Every time your heart beats, it pumps blood through your arteries to the rest of your body.

3.10 Make web content printer friendly.

Many web users with limited literacy skills prefer to print pages from a website rather than read text on a computer screen.28,30,60,65 They may also want to share health information with family members or friends who don’t have access to a computer or post it on their refrigerator. That’s why it’s important to make sure your content is ready to print.

Figure 3.10

When a user clicks the “Print” button, a printer-friendly page appears. The printer-friendly version has clear headings and doesn’t include page numbers.

Printer friendly page of the aids.gov website

Source: https://www.aids.gov/hiv-aids-basics/just-diagnosed-with-hiv-aids/overview/women/


“I would like to print this page and show it to family members who need this information.”

Use print links for pages designed specifically for printing.

For pages meant to be printed (like a list of questions to bring to the doctor’s office), prompt users with a print link. Make the print link or icon clearly visible on each page. If possible, give users the option to print a single page, a complete section, or just a portion of the text. 

Make printed content user-friendly.

Follow these design guidelines:

  • Use a lot of white space, good color contrast, and clear headings on each page.
  • Specify a print style sheet that will only be used when the user clicks to print the page.
  • Design your site with fluid, percentage-based widths that allow for printing from a range of devices.
  • If your site has page numbers, make sure that printing will override them—or give users a “view all pages” option.71,72

3.11 Make your site accessible to people with disabilities.

All Federal Government websites must be accessible to people with disabilities. This is often called Section 508 compliance (referring to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act).73 The guidance in Section 508 helps us design websites that work for everyone.

Here are a few of the important considerations addressed under Section 508:

  • Make sure screen readers and other assistive technologies can read your site. That way, users with physical impairments will still be able to access your content. Usually, this involves confirming a logical reading order of your page, making sure important content is near the top of what the screen reader will “see” first, and making sure that images have appropriate alt text. You can find other criteria in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0.
  • Mark up page titles and section headings consistently. This will ensure that users with and without a screen reader can easily identify the major content sections on the page.
  • Check that users can navigate your site using only a keyboard. That way, your site will still be accessible for users who have mobility or vision impairments and aren’t comfortable using a mouse or touch screen.
  • Choose strong color contrast, especially for buttons. Many users with vision impairments are not actually blind, but rather have low vision or color blindness. For these users, it’s very difficult to tell the difference between similar colors—low-contrast text may disappear.
  • Test content that requires the use of plug-ins or dedicated software for accessibility.30 There are additional accessibility requirements for other plug-ins that take a user out of a web browser. It’s important to test non-HTML elements in their application to make sure they are still accessible to all users.

Get more information about web accessibility from the Web Accessibility Initiative.

3.12 Make websites responsive.

Today’s users expect websites to work well on every screen they touch—whether it’s a phone, a tablet, a desktop computer, or whatever else we haven’t thought of yet. More and more, users are accessing the web from mobile devices. And for some—especially low-literacy users—mobile devices may be their only means of web access.17

With this shift in how we’re accessing web content, web designers have a variety of options for serving content to mobile users, including native mobile apps, web apps, and mobile websites.74,75

For most health websites, responsive design is the best choice.

Responsive design websites show users content in a format that’s tailored to the screen size, platform, and orientation of the user’s device.72,73

Figure 3.11

AIDS.gov’s responsive design delivers content in different formats based on the user’s screen width.

Desktop, tablet, and mobile screenshots of aids.gov responsive web design template

Source: https://www.aids.gov/hiv-aids-basics/ at several screen widths

Figure 3.12

CDC’s responsive design template offers a good experience for users on mobile. The site is reprioritized so that users don’t need to “pinch” or zoom into content when they land on the page.

Desktop and mobile screenshots of cdc.gov

Source: http://www.cdc.gov/

A main advantage of responsive design is that a single website can deliver content optimized to appear on a wide variety of devices and screen sizes. But keep in mind that responsive design is limited in that only format—not content—can be tailored based on a user’s device. That’s why it’s so important to develop content for the smallest screen size. By doing so, content developers must make tough choices and create a thoughtful, logical content hierarchy and cut (or link to) superfluous information.

Most of the time, users won’t think about how your site was built—they just want a seamless experience across devices.72

3.13 Design mobile content to meet mobile users’ needs.

Many of the core design principles in this guide apply to mobile design as well as desktop, but there are some additional things to consider when designing on mobile.

Limit the number of elements on each screen.76

Keeping your design uncluttered is especially important for mobile users who are viewing content on a small screen. Simple screens enable users to find what they’re looking for more efficiently.

Figure 3.13

On mobile devices, the HHS.gov homepage features a simple search bar and 4 buttons, each linked to a secondary page.

Mobile version of hhs.gov

Source: http://www.hhs.gov/

Prioritize content and features at the top of the page.

Users spend the most time looking at content near the top of the page.77 Give limited space to elements users interact with at the top of the page—like buttons, menus, and links—so there’s room for content.78

Figure 3.14

On mobile devices, the CDC website prioritizes important content at the top of the page—images and additional settings (like language preference) are at the bottom of the page.

Desktop and mobile versions of cdc.gov with Ebola topics

Source: http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/symptoms/index.html

Make interaction easy.

Mobile devices have smaller screens, so selecting a button or typing may be more challenging than on a desktop computer. Additionally, mobile interfaces can be challenging for users with physical conditions that affect their fine motor control (how precisely they can click or touch things).

With this in mind:

  • Limit the amount of text your users need to type.20
  • Use large buttons and tappable areas so that people using small devices can easily select them. Also be sure to include enough space around them.11,17 
  • Place frequently used buttons where they’re easy to reach. The easiest places to reach depend on the size of the device and how the user is holding it. In most cases, the center and bottom of the screen are easier to reach than the top.17,79
Figure 3.15

Users hold their phones in various ways, but the center and bottom of the screen are usually easiest to reach.

First image of phones being held different ways & where is easiest to reach Second image of phones being held different ways & where is easiest to reach

Source: Hoober, S. (2013). How Do Users Really Hold Mobile Devices? Retrieved from http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2013/02/how-do-users-really-hold-mobile-devices.php

  • Try radio buttons. Limited-literacy users find large radio buttons the easiest way to make selections on a mobile device. Use them instead of checkboxes or interactive icons.
Figure 3.16

HealthCare.gov uses radio buttons for the answers to the question, “What do you want to do first?”

mobile version of the healthcare.gov screener

Source: https://www.healthcare.gov/screener/

Try this

To improve “tappability,” be sure the label is associated with the radio button. That way, the label will be tappable, too—so users have a bigger area to tap.


To be successful, web content doesn’t just need to be well written—it needs to look easy to read. Thoughtful design and layout can help your readers focus on your content without feeling overwhelmed, confused, or distracted by how the information is presented.  

Remember to think about all your users—including those on mobile and those with accessibility needs—when you’re designing your site. Make sure your content is accessible and easy to navigate, regardless of how it’s accessed.

In the next section, we discuss content organization and navigation—that is, making sure your users can easily get to the right page on your site to find the information they’re looking for.