The Challenge of Ensuring Comprehensibility

Blog post from Oct 17, 2017

  • "It's all Greek to me."
  • "So what exactly is this sentence trying to say?"
  • "Am I the problem, or has the manual been written in somewhat awkward language?"

Manuals are not the only texts that are often difficult to understand. From time to time, we all come across texts that we do not or hardly comprehend. That is nothing out of the ordinary. However, it would doubtlessly be beneficial to look behind the scenes of comprehensibility and examine what comprehensibility is, why something may be difficult to understand, and how comprehensibility can be optimized.

What Reader Statements Reveal about Comprehensibility

"Why has the text been crammed onto such a little piece of paper that is hardly legible. I can't read the warnings in small print, no chance! Plus, all text blocks look the same, which makes it very difficult not to get lost."

Legibility is often a problem especially with printed user manuals. Legibility is determined by the layout and font size and represents a basic precondition for comprehensibility. If the reader is faced with an obstacle at this stage, the text comprehension will fail from the outset, and the content will miss its purpose. 

"So what is meant by a 'disk'? The previous sentence was about a 'drive'."

"What a long sentence! I can't even remember the beginning of the sentence. Never mind, I guess it wasn't that important."

The two examples draw attention to the comprehensibility at the language level, i.e. the readability. Errors in the field of spelling, grammar, and style as well as inconsistent terminology can impair or even block the correct cognitive perception and processing of content.

"Nice to know what the product is capable of and how to use it. But can I connect it to the computer? Am I supposed to know? Well, I don't."

But even a carefully prepared, legible text can miss its objective. For example, this might be the case if certain prior knowledge is assumed, which however the reader does not have. Without this prior knowledge, the reader must either do research to fill the gaps or give up.

As you can see, there are many stages – starting from the visual processing to the mental processing – at which the comprehensibility could suffer.

Why Comprehensibility is So Important

Incomprehensible texts are a nuisance, not only for readers, but also for content authors who want their texts to be successful. In the field of technical documentation, texts can be considered successful if they enable the reader to use a product safely and correctly. In marketing communication, texts are instrumental in achieving customer bonding. They often contain a call to action, they are meant to project a positive corporate image, and they are supposed to ensure frequent customer contact and successful conversions. All of this – and more – determines the success of marketing texts.

To attain these goals, companies invest time and money. If the reader gives up mentally before the text fulfills its purpose, the texts will be ineffective, and the expenses will have been made in vain.

Conclusion

Comprehensibility is a multi-layered mental construct that can be impaired in many ways. This represents a challenge with respect to the creation of content, as incomprehensible texts waste financial and time resources.

Content authors can measure, evaluate, and optimize the comprehensibility of their texts in various ways. For more information, please refer to the white paper "Evaluating and Improving the Comprehensibility of Texts".

tl;dr

Incomprehensible texts miss their objective and lead to a waste of time and financial resources.

Thus, it is important to check the comprehensibility of your own text and to optimize it, if necessary.