Quick Bits: Thoughts on How We Read Online

I’ve been reading Nicholas Carr‘s book, the Shallows again lately. In it, he takes particular care in laying out study upon study and argument upon argument to promote the idea that the Internet is a very noisy place to attempt reading or learning.

Hypermedia, text, and other online distractions

Distractions from hypertext, ads, videos, and other tabs or windows make for an experience with a cacophony of signal and response distractions.

How We Read Online

Part of this discovery of reading has confirmed for me details around things I feel I’ve already known. It’s fascinating though to learn of some of the details and to see the situation from Carr’s viewpoint. Here’s a few passages from the chapter, The Jugler’s Brain.

Jakob Nielsen
Image via Wikipedia

In 1879, A French ophthalmologist named Louis Emile Javal discovered that when people read, their eyes don’t sweep across the words in a perfectly fluid way. Their visual focus advances in little jumps, called saccades, pausing briefly at different points along each line.

In 2006, Jakob Nielsen, a longtime consultant on the design of Web pages who has been studying online reading since the 1990s, conducted an eye-tracking study of Web users. He had 232 people wear a small camera that tracked their eye movements as they read pages of text and browsed other content. Nielsen found that hardly any of the participants read online text in a methodical, line-by-line way, as they’d typically read a page of text in a book. The vast majority skimmed the text quickly, their eyes skipped down the page in a pattern that resembled, roughly, the letter F.

“F,” wrote Nielsen, in summing up the findings for his clients, is “for fast.”

.. Nielsen told his clients, “when you add verbiage to a page, you can assume that customers will read 18% of it.” And that, he cautioned, is almost certainly an overstatement. It’s unlikely that people in the study were spending alll their time reading: they were also probably glancing at pictures, videos, advertisements, and other types of content.