After researching online reading I was left wondering if our concentration on content structuring was an attempt to communicate to the ‘new reader’. The question is,
Who is the new reader?
In order to get to know the new reader, we have to answer the age old ever changing question; how do we read online? According to Usability God Jacob Nielsen, we don’t. What his group found was that readers don’t ‘read’, they skim and scan looking for keywords and anything that catches their attention. But that does not answer the question, it dismisses it.
Eye-tracking studies reveal emerging reading patterns and is a great way to measure our transition with technology. Early studies showed that reading is not a left to right process, first we sweep our eyes over the text stopping on ‘fixations’. The findings showed that viewers fixate on a word, depending on word length and whether it was a content word (85%) or function word (35%).
Similar eye-tracking studies of online reading done by the Nielson Norman Group discovered a dominant reading pattern that lead to the saying, “F is for Fast”. Starting from the upper left corner, users sweep their eyes across the page in a F shaped pattern. Two horizontal swipes across and one vertical swipe down the left.
Printed material is still statistically more engaging but the line is merging. Eyes tracking studies of newspapers showed that 55% of words were read on printed versions while 44% of the same articles were read on the online version. Psychologists suggest that the problem maybe in our excessive selectivity brought on by information’s ease of access.
Overall research showed that users scan and skim web content. The most recent study I found stated that 79 percent of users scanned pages while only 16 percent read word-by-word. At most only twenty percent of the words on tested sites were actually read. They also found that scanning of text was more common in higher-literacy users. Lower-literacy users read word for word, they ‘plow’ the text line by line. Plowing text reduces the field of view causing users to miss objects outside the text. Lastly lower-literacy users were found to break concentration when having to scroll or paginate. In fact, 80% of the time was spent above the fold (vs. below). and 69% of the time looking at the left half of a page (vs. right).
Just give me the answer.
The biggest problem is skimming and scanning or information foraging. A six year study showed that web users changed from ‘surfing’ to what is being called ‘information foraging’ in other words skimming for something very specific. Many out the blame on search engines. Now one could argue all this depends on the content and that online users are looking for an answer not a causal read. But when looking at academic sites with full-text views, research showed views were brief and searched through. The longest average view was in life science students who average 112s before clicking out. I was shocked that stats shows most users only read the first eleven characters of a headline.
Researchers say this is because scanning is natural while reading is unnatural.
How do I know if I want to read more if I can’t see what I will be reading?
In nature, information has a physical place, we know how to get to it. Before the web came along, information storage was spatial and used our innate navigation capabilities. I read one article that went as far to say that a book on a shelf works like a visual landmark that can help you remember., storage for your knowledge. The web and digital media lacks such spatial navigability.
Nielsen’s research is extensive and it is evident that success lies in the content. When I was working on the problems surrounding reading long texts online I looked into Nielsens research on ebooks. To quote it,
“I really do think we remember less from e-books. This is not something I have formally measured, but just based on both studies we’ve done looking at reading behavior on tablets and books and reading from regular computers…The bigger the screen, the more people can remember and the smaller, the less they can remember….the most dramatic example is reading from mobile phones. [You] lose almost all context…Human short-term memory is extremely volatile and weak…That’s why there’s a huge benefit from being able to glance [across a page or two] and see [everything] simultaneously. Even though the eye can only see one thing at a time, it moves so fast that for all practical purposes, it can see [the pages] and can interrelate the material and understand it more…The more you have to expend your minimal brain power to divert it into these other tasks [like search, the less it is] available for learning.”
Where am I?
The new reader seems to have been created through our relationship with hypertext. And according to the numbers, hypertext degrades the quality of reader engagement and lowers comprehension. I discussed hypertext fragmentation already, but just to recap the problem, the web is not spatial or navigable and our reading experiences have lost their spatial sense, its just a lot of teleportation. There are so many terms that capture the problem surrounding fragmentation and displacement my favorite being ‘Google-beam’.
Is designing for the new reader a good thing?
Like any equation, this problem has two sides. If there is a new reader then there must be an old reader. So far we have gone about this problem with a business mentality, testing solutions via there success with the new reader. Put the important information in the first two paragraphs, keep everything concise and paragraphs short with only one idea, use bigger/shorter/meaningful headings, use bullets and lists, keep everything to the left, and so on. In my eyes information foraging is not a positive thing, and in that light changing content to be foraged condones a problem.
It is safe for me to say that the wonderful world of information is making us less informed. I am being dramatic right? The problems I am looking into has been around for along time now and we continue to work at it by, for lack of a better word, dumbing down the content. There are many delusions about generations, the problem must be you didn’t grow up with the internet. The young generation is not actually any better at muli-tasking for example. Studies found that older generations had improved technical literacy while younger generations had decreased creative and critical thinking skills over a seven year period from 2002-2009. It is clear that online reading has caused us to skim and not read and the habit has poured from the virtual right into the physical world. I set out to reverse this by pouring the physical into the virtual.
The screen is eating my brain!
Researchers at the University of Gothenburg recently studied 4,100 men and women ages 20 and 24 for a year and found that a majority of them who constantly use a computer and mobile phones can develop stress, sleeping disorders and depression. Thomee, the lead researcher wrote,
“High quantitative use was a central link between computer use and stress, sleep disturbances, and depression, described by the young adults,…It was easy to spend more time than planned at the computer (e.g., working, gaming, or chatting), and this tended to lead to time pressure, neglect of other activities and personal needs (such as social interaction, sleep, physical activity), as well as bad ergonomics, and mental overload.”
The Dynamic Page
I love technology and think we should embrace it, but there is a serious call for change. We rely on the shape of letter and text block, words are visual objects we use for processing. Every block of text is a system designed for the human brain to intake information, and a poor unnatural design can make intake impossible.
My thesis is becoming centered around the idea of the ‘dynamic page’, finding the old reader in the new by attempting to reduce fragmentation, connecting the virtual to the physical, and applying natural processes back to the screen. My topic is not focused on reading but interaction and engagement in processes that facilitate comprehension.