When you look at early research, it's fascinating to see that even in the days of green phosphorus monitors, studies found that there wasn't a huge difference in speed and comprehension between reading on-screen and reading on paper. Paper was the clear winner only when test subjects were asked to skim the text.
The studies are not definitive, however, given all the factors that can affect online reading, such as scrolling, font size, user expertise, etc. Nielsen holds that on-screen reading is 25 percent slower than reading on paper. Even so, experts agree on what you can do to make screen reading more comfortable:
- Choose a default font designed for screen reading; e.g., Verdana, Trebuchet, Georgia.
- Rest your eyes for 10 minutes every 30 minutes.
- Get a good monitor. Don't make it too bright or have it too close to your eyes.
- Minimize reflections.
- Skip long lines of text, which promote fatigue.
- Avoid MySpace.
Back to the Jungle
Nielsen's apt description of the online reader: "[U]sers are selfish, lazy, and ruthless." You, my dear user, pluck the low-hanging fruit. When you arrive on a page, you don't actually deign to read it. You scan. If you don't see what you need, you're gone.
And it's not you who has to change. It's me, the writer:
- One idea per paragraph
- Half the word count of "conventional writing"! (Ouch!)
- Other stuff along these lines
Nielsen often sounds like a cross between E.B. White and the Terminator. Here's his advice in a column titled "Long vs. Short Articles as Content Strategy": "A good editor should be able to cut 40 percent of the word count while removing only 30 percent of an article's value. After all, the cuts should target the least valuable information."
[Ed. Note: Fascinating asides about the writer's voice, idiosyncrasies, and fragile ego were cut here.]
I kid about Nielsen, but he's very sensible. We're active participants on the Web, looking for information and diversion. It's natural that people prefer short articles. As Nielsen states, motivated readers who want to know everything about a subject (i.e., parents trying to get their kid into a New York preschool) will read long treatises with semicolons, but the rest of us are snacking. His advice: Embrace hypertext. Keep things short for the masses, but offer links for the Type A's.
No Blogs, Though
Nielsen may be ruthless about brevity, but he doesn't advocate blogging. Here's his logic: "Such postings are good for generating controversy and short-term traffic, and they're definitely easier to write. But they don't build sustainable value."