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If it feels right... It is right... right?

A few years ago, a research study – purportedly from Cambridge University – grabbed quite a bit of attention. The study said that the order of letters within words was really not so important to reading. Just to reinforce the point, the email that circulated the Internet included a dramatic demonstration, something like the following:

...In fact, sentences in whcih lettres aer transpsoed (or jubmled up), as in the setnence you are now raeding, aer no more difficult to raed tahn setnencse in whcih teh lettres aer in teh rihgt oerdr...

Readers were convinced. They could read that sentence. It really didn't feel hard. Human brains are amazing, aren't they? Viral marketing took over.

Everybody got the email messages. Psycholinguists and linguists (researchers particularly interested in how language works – I'm one) got the email twice a day.

What's Usability got to do with it?

Have you ever had that same experience in the interface design world?

Some sort of a "prevailing wisdom" about what citizens/ consumers/ staff need percolates up. A reasonable-sounding (folk usability) explanation is generated to explain why. Often there is an interesting user anecdote that led to the explanation in the first place.

The usability team – sensing a mismatch – tries to push back with explanations and similar examples. But the momentum of folk explanations continues to build...

It happens a lot, actually.

One way to deal with a prevailing "received wisdom" is to clearly show that it's not accurate. Typically, this means drawing on existing evidence and (perhaps) extending current theory to show why the naive theory isn't quite right.

If yuo can raed this yuor brian wroks. But that’s all you can conclude.

When the jumbled words email came out, psycholinguists did that. They tried to fight back against the folk psychology intuition with detailed scientific explanations, invoking well-understood constructs like top-down processing, phonetic neighborhood activation and race-based models of lexical access.

Their alternative explanations were also based in experimental science. They presented logically argued steps leading to an obvious conclusion: the Cambridge study didn't make sense. To no avail. Converts to the Cambridge-order-doesn't-matter-school-of-reading felt they also had "data." They could read the sentence, after all.

Eventually most of the psycholinguists/ linguists/ cognitive scientists (including me) gave up on trying to fix it. When the email arrived (again), they just cringed (again), hit delete (again) and secretly hoped it wouldn't come up (again) at the next family get-together.

The case of the jumbled words has a happy ending, though. Rayner, White, Johnson, Liversedge (2006) stepped up to provide evidence that seems to work to debunk the jumbled words legend for lay people. They report both current eye-tracking studies and previous work (Rayner & Kaiser, 1975) that captures the relative difficulty (or cognitive cost) of reading sentences with words that have

  • no jumbled letters
  • jumbled letters
  • letter substitutions (replace one letter with another, inappropriate letter)

Their work shows that:

  • Some presentations of jumbled letters are easier to read than others (e.g., it's easier if the words are jumbled at the end of the sentence or the letters are jumbled at the end of the word).
  • Sentences with letter substitutions are harder to read than sentences with jumbled words.
  • Reading words with jumbled letters always costs more (in cognitive processing terms) than reading normal text.

On making explanations usable.

The last statement – if you make something more complicated to do, it gets harder to do it – seems so obvious. So why was it so hard to convince people it's true?

Psycholinguists' attempts to debunk the urban legend didn't work because they provided explanations by cognitive scientists framed for cognitive scientists. In fact, the early counter-explanations are based on solid research. But to draw the right conclusions, listeners had to:

  1. suspend their disbelief.
  2. follow an theoretical explanation that drew on research studies designed to address similar but not identical questions.
  3. speak cognitive science.

In contrast, the Cambridge study email presented a simple premise with one simple example to back it up. It presented one example in isolation:

If yuo can raed this yuor brian wroks.

Work hard to understand the alternative or accept the explanation that seems obvious because you've experienced it. Which would you choose?

Wow! That was easy.

Perhaps psycholinguists would have enjoyed more traction if, instead of offering a mini-lecture on lexical access, they offered the following one counter example with a relative baseline to compare against:

No, really... Which is easier?

a. if oyu nac eadr shti rouy narbi swork.


b. If yuo can raed this yuor brian wroks.


c. If you can read this, your brain works.

Sure, this explanation is less explanatory. But the goal was debunking the jumbled letters myth, not to enlist a new psycholinguist.

Sometimes convincing does not require educating.

Usability professionals fall into the same trap.

Because we are enthusiastic, we try to educate colleagues indiscriminately. We are effusive about affordances and primary noun analyses. We explain why the method used in user-centered design is the right one; how the logic of the interaction works; the gestalt of the visual hierarchy. We present detailed findings of usability tests when, perhaps a single "WOW!" moment from the usability testing highlights tape would do the trick.

Though none of the lessons are about language processing, there are several lessons to be learned from the "Cambridge study"...

  1. Having an evidence-driven theory may not be enough.
  2. Explanations do not need to be long.
  3. Explanations do need to be usable.


Rayner, K., White, S., Johnson, R., Liversedge, S. (2006). Raeding Wrods with jumbled Lettres; There is a cost. Psychological Science 17(3), 192-193.

Rayner, K., & Kaiser, J.S. (1975). Reading mutilated text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 67, 301–306.

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

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Reader comments

Ron Sova
Sova Consulting

Kath, thanks for addressing this issue. This email has been bugging me for a long time. Your third point, about the "adaptability of people" is the reason poorly designed interfaces are still with us. A very well written article, Ron.

Elianna James

Useful article. Many times in my field, QA Usability Testing, I hear this same argument– "but the design works", "we can find the information", "it works as designed". Strenuous arguments including logic don't always convince. A couple of examples of ways "they" might have trouble using the interface do work! As my late, great grandma said, "It depends on whose ox is being gored!"


Good article. Dr. Schaffer makes a good point when he relates the jumbled words to business consequences. I think a jumbled interface will have a negative effect on the interface, very unprofessional.

Sarla Holmes, Gordon Institute of TAFE

It is interesting having looked into this urban legend, however I approach this theory from a marketing point of view and argue, it's readable and diffferent than what the brain is expecting to see, so it draws the eye. I'd be interested in feedback regarding the theory that because the text is different than what the brain expects, the eye is more likely to be drawn to the text.

Peter Biddlecombe, KODAK Dental Systems

That darned language study:

I have actually sent debunking e-mails once or twice. But the debunking e-mail has to be right. The usual version of the "study result" is that as long as you leave the first and last letter of each word in the right place, the order of the other letters does not matter. If you stick to sentences made up of short words, this is quite difficult to disprove with an example – with a four-letter word, only one "wrong" spelling is possible. You have to use an example with long words to show that the length of words can have a sacgnnnftiiit [significant] effect on the practical value of the conclusion.

Howard Tamler, Amdocs Product Group

Here's something I agree with violently...


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