Low Contrast Text: Trendy But Poor Usability

header_dangerThe folks at Nielsen Norman Group have done it again – reminded us that the thrill of a new trend us probably keeping us from doing our work as communicators. The latest no-no: low contrast text.

Yes, grey text on a grey background can create a cool overall visual impact. And, it is different from all those white background, black text sites out there. We’ll if being different is your goal, go for it. But if you have something to communicate online, you are shooting yourself in the foot.

A low-contrast design aesthetic is haunting the web, taking legibility and discoverability with it. It’s straining our eyes, making us all feel older, and a little less capable.

So, before you let the thrill of being different or trendy dictate your website look, here’s a reminder that insufficient contrast between the text color and the background degrades the user experience.

Nielsen offers the following reasons:

  • Legibility suffers. When the contrast is too low, users experience eye strain as they try to decipher the words.
  • Findability is reduced. Users who don’t see an element on the page cannot use it.
  • User confidence diminishes. Many users blame themselves when they are unable to accomplish tasks on a modern-looking website, because they cannot see the text or they struggle to read it. When people don’t feel confident on a site, they are more likely to abandon it and go elsewhere.
  • Mobile use becomes even more difficult. Even high-contrast text is hard to read when there is glare, but low-contrast text is nearly impossible.
  • Accessibility is severely reduced for users with low vision or cognitive impairments. Millions of people around the world have some type of vision impairment, including presbyopia (difficulty focusing on close objects), macular degeneration, glaucoma, and cataracts.
  • Cognitive strain increases. Low contrast treatments risk sending users the wrong signal about the availability of an option.