As most academic journal access is now done online, rather than through print, I thought it worthwhile to consider how the experience of reading webpages and eBooks differs from print. The study I mentioned in my last post suggested that academics were reading more content online, but in less detail, preferring to skim or concentrate on specific sections. This certainly rang true for me; one of the of the oldest adages about online user behaviour is that users do not read content; they scan it, picking out key parts, rather than reading from start to finish.

It’s not surprising that users should behave in that manner - webpages offer a significantly more distracting reading experience, compared to print. One of my personal pet hates is newspaper sites splitting their stories over multiple pages (up to 15 pages in one example), thereby repeatedly interrupting the user’s attention. Websites also include navigation and search functions, which are absent from the printed page. Most websites also include links to related content in the middle of their content, rather than as footnotes at the end, which can result in the reader never reaching the end of the article, having instead being directed to another page. To combat this, some people have suggested applying ‘delinkification’ to online content, so that links should be listed at the end, just as references are in academic articles. As an experiment, that’s how this post is setup.

A new and ambitious way to deal with the 'distraction' issue has recently been introduced in Apple’s Safari browser. When Safari comes across an item of content like a news article, it will offer a ‘reader’ option that displays the article in question in an overlay pane. The overlay strips out all navigation and all adverts, thereby reducing the article to a simple black and white format, which essentially mirrors the experience of reading print. Users of other browsers can get an idea of the concept by using plugins, such as Readability.

With eBooks, the picture improves but similar issues remain. Research from Nielsen Norman Group suggests that devices like the iPad and Kindle fail to offer a comparable experience to print; the average reading speed on the iPad was 6.2% lower than the printed book, while the Kindle measured at 10.7% slower than print. The Kindle’s latest release has been issued since this study, but I’d still guess that it’s behind print. This research shouldn’t be too surprising; both devices have screens with about half the resolution quality of the printed page. Hopefully, as screen quality improves, the gap will close. Interestingly however, the iPad and Kindle both outperformed the printed book in terms of user satisfaction, presumably due to extra features, such as showing how much of a chapter is left to read.

Experiments in Delinkification:
Safari Reader Plugin:
Readability Brower Plugin:
iPad and Kindle reading speeds: