Why shouldn’t we justify texts online?

Published Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Justifying texts online is a bad practice. Internet inherited text editing styles and practices from print. One of the features of text editing and displaying in the browser window is text alignment. Text alignment is a paragraph formatting attribute that determines the appearance of the text in a whole paragraph and allows users to align text on a page/paragraph horizontally. There are four possibilities:

  • left
  • right
  • centred
  • justified (align to left and right)
Don't justify texts online

How do people read text online?

In western culture, LTR (left-to-right) writing is a standard and left alignment of text is a natural way for text reading. The essential insight for this topic is eye-tracking visualizations research and study “F-Shaped Pattern For Reading Web Content (original study)” by Nielson Norman Group (16 April 2006).   

From the study:

[…] Summary: Eyetracking visualizations show that users often read Web pages in an F-shaped pattern: two horizontal stripes followed by a vertical stripe.

F for fast. That’s how users read your precious content. In a few seconds, their eyes move at amazing speeds across your website’s words in a pattern that’s very different from what you learned in school. […].

F-shaped reading patterns. Eye tracking research.
The image shows a left-to-right F-shaped reading pattern with the main focus on rows/lines scanning.
Picture source: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/f-shaped-pattern-reading-web-content-discovered/

The paragraph and pictures above describe the best practices for online text editing and presentation on the website. With the increasing flow of easy-to-use (but mostly useless) website builders, we observe a growing amount of lousy typography, including this fundamental formatting error – fully justified texts. 

Why don’t we justify texts online?

The main reason is that it is a bad practice and makes reading more difficult. Many people with cognitive disabilities have a great deal of trouble with blocks of text that are justified (aligned to both the left and the right margins). 

Rivers of white

The spaces between words create spaces running down the page, making the text difficult for some people to read. This problem is known as the “rivers of white.” The best way to avoid this problem is not to create a fully justified text layout (aligned to both the left and the right margins). It can be a problem for dyslexic people, making reading difficult, if not impossible. Reading justified text can be a problem for people without any disability, either. 

text aligned to left and justified
Example of the exact text aligned to the left (left column) and justified – aligned to both left and right (right column).

The “rivers of white” effect is usually more substantial on narrow, mobile devices. 

Justified text can be much harder to read on mobile, and the narrow screen can make the text look even more cluttered and difficult to follow. Significant gaps between words interrupt the reading flow. 

An additional problem is with the line/row tracking. While the reader’s eye is scanning each line, it’s easier for her to find the following line if the lines are of uneven length (jagged). It is especially true for dyslexic readers.

Screen magnifier users

Uneven word spacing can also cause problems for people with various vision impairments who use screen magnification software. Many magnifiers work by enlarging the area around your mouse cursor. Large uneven spaces are also magnified, making it difficult to follow the words with their magnifying software. Instead of following the flow of words along even spacing, users have to find the start of each new word. For these people, the already exaggerated spaces between words are magnified still further, making the gaps even harder to jump across.

Search Engine Optimization

Justified text can also have an indirect impact on SEO. If your site’s pages are challenging to read, people are less likely to stick around and read them. It can lead to lower engagement rates, which can, in turn, hurt your site’s ranking in search results.

Additionally, justified text can be harder to read on mobile devices. Finally, this text layout can indirectly impact your site’s search engine optimization (SEO). Overall, it’s best to not justify texts online to make your site more accessible and user-friendly.

WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines)

1.4.8 Visual Presentation: For the visual presentation of blocks of text, a mechanism is available to achieve the following: (Level AAA)

  1. Foreground and background colours can be selected by the user.
  2. Width is no more than 80 characters or glyphs (40 if CJK).
  3. Text is not justified (aligned to the left and the right margins).
  4. Line spacing (leading) is at least space-and-a-half within paragraphs, and paragraph spacing is at least 1.5 times larger than the line spacing.
  5. Text can be resized without assistive technology up to 200 percent in a way that does not require the user to scroll horizontally to read a line of text on a full-screen window.

Point 3 clearly describes how to follow the WCAG success criterion in the WCAG audit. Simply don’t justify texts online. It is worth mentioning that in many countries (e.g. EU), websites and apps of public sector bodies need to meet specific technical accessibility standards. The Web Accessibility Directive (Directive (EU) 2016/2102) has been in force since 22 December 2016. It provides people with disabilities with better access to websites and mobile apps of public services. This directive is a consequence of applying Article 9 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

In Australia, the government enacted the accessibility regulations for public sector bodies on 23 September 2018. Australian government states […] on the website that under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, Australian Government agencies are required to ensure information and services are provided in a non-discriminatory accessible manner. […] and […]australia.gov.au is currently compliant to Level A of the Web content accessibility guidelines version 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) standard. It is being upgraded to Double A compliance over time. In some cases, content will be accessible to Level Triple A.[…]”

Summary

Don’t justify texts online because of the many different screen sizes and resolutions, text alignment will never look perfect. While editing text for the print, the designer has complete control of its outcome, and the text print will look as designed.

Keeping in mind many combinations of website browsers and apps, a website designer can not be sure how the browser will render the justified text on the screen. 

An internet website is not ideal for justified content because too many factors can change. The good practice is to avoid this practice for online texts.

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