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Why people don't read online and what to do about it

Ubiquity, Volume 2005 Issue November | BY Michelle Cameron 

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Full citation in the ACM Digital Library


We really mean it. People don't read online. Unless you lead them to do so.

Here at Interactive Media Associates, we find ourselves repeating this fact many times during early planning and design sessions with our Web site clients. The reality of the situation hasn't changed much since the dawn of the online medium, when early research suggested that people were uncomfortable reading online. The fact that you can't curl up with screen device has something to do with it. The flicker of the monitor (improved since the early days, but still taxing on the eyes) is also a factor. (Usability guru Jakob Nielson recently updated one of his columns on why people scan rather than read on screen by reporting that Microsoft's Cleartype technology improves screen legibility by 5%, which, Nielson says, is still not as good as reading on paper.)

Here are some of other reasons why people won't read online:

  • Reading from computer screens is slow and laborious work - and takes people about 25 percent more time than reading from paper. While technologies such as the one Nielson mentions above may remedy this in coming years, technologically, we're just not there yet.

  • People like to interact with Web pages, which, subliminally at least, they still treat as applications rather than publications. This means that they want to click on links and use tools that are embedded in the page. This can pull them away from what they are reading and - as noted in a recent New York Times Magazine article, "Meet the Life Hackers" (Oct. 16, 2006) - some of them take quite awhile to return to the original page - if they ever do.

  • There are so many other pages out there in cyberspace that users are constantly barraged by the feeling that they might be wasting their time if they spend too much time on any one. Search engines, which serve thousands of choices for the same subject, contribute to this feeling, and often people will find themselves on multiple sites, trying to evaluate which one suits their current purpose the best.

  • People just don't have enough time. Both the New York Times Magazine article cited above, and Nielson's Oct. 1997 piece, "Why Web Users Scan Instead of Read" indicate that modern life is filled with interruptions and that we are all besieged with a constant flood of information from a wide variety of sources. In an age where everything competes for our attention, nothing is going to hold it for too long.

Acknowledging that people don't read online is one thing; knowing what to do about it is another. Here are some guidelines that may help.

  • Write concisely and to the point. It was Shakespeare who wrote "brevity is the soul of wit" (Hamlet, II, iii). Had Shakespeare been alive today, he probably would have been a technical writer or games creator, not a poet or playwright. (Writing poetry and plays in the 21st century just doesn't pay enough.)

  • It's been proven that two things people will look at on the screen are bullet points and numbered lists. Knowing that, use them. It's called content chunking, and, as you can see from many of our own pieces, it's an effective way to pull the eye.

  • Other techniques that break up the page include subheads and very short paragraphs.

  • People like to interact with the page. Give them the opportunity to do so, through related links, tidbits they can click on to learn more — if they chose to. Note that we've studded this page with such links, which open, of course, in a new browser window. Have you been tempted to click on any of them?

  • Use the newspaper writer's technique of the upside-down pyramid, which includes the crux of the article at the top of the page. That way, if people move on before they get to the "fold" in the screen, they will have gleaned the most important information anyway.

  • Know when to stop writing. Like now.
About the Author
Michelle Cameron is VP/Creative Director at Interactive Media Associates, Inc., a Parsippany, NJ-based new media firm. She can be reached at mcameron@imediainc.com. The company Web site is http://www.imediainc.com.

COMMENTS

Oops. I forgot to put a number there: 1: I have noticed that when I make something long people will not even attempt to read it and it almost drives me to drink: 2. It's one of my pet peeves as I can pretty much understand the point someone is making on a post even if it's broken English so long as it's NOT text speak or I am totally lost on that. 3. This comment form is really weird how it has a sideways scroll bar instead of up and down as my words will vanish to the right.

— Kyle Hill, Thu, 08 Dec 2011 06:55:38 UTC

I have noticed that when I make something long unless I put out numbers to break things up people will NOT even attempt to read what I say and it almost drives me to drink. It's on of my pet peeves as I can pretty much understand or get the gist anybody's posts unless they are written in text speak then I am totally lost.

— Kyle, Thu, 08 Dec 2011 06:52:57 UTC

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