Ana Catarina RodriguesAlumnus
“I took a speed reading course and was able to read War and Peace
in twenty minutes. It involves Russia”.
In a world where all is shifting, the new information and communication technologies, by changing the ways we access and understand information, lead not only to a reconfiguration of the designer’s activity, but also to the emergence of a vast realm of theoretical and practical reflection.
According to Katherine Hayles, “we think through, with, and alongside media”. Ancient technologies, such as the book, now coexist with text in various digital forms, and as new technologies appear, Hayles’ proposition becomes far more complex.
The advent of widespread computer use in general, and increasing developments in the domain of hypertext in particular, have increased awareness of the modification in the ways of reading — one of the main consequences of the digital revolution.
Information (or information overload) is one of the main features of the present society, who lives in a networked space characterized by the continuous information flow. Text spreads by the media, is complemented by image, and hypertextualizes itself; consequently, reading becomes accelerated and diversified. It is precisely in the concept of hypertext that lies one of the major reasons for the modification of reading behaviours, in the shift from mechanical to digital. The differences between analogue and digital text are notorious: in a printed book, sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters follow each other, in an order that is determined not only by the author, but also by the physical and sequential structure of the book itself. In the digital world, conversely, this is not the case. The information space is not, in any way, limited to the three physical dimensions. An expression of an idea can include a multidimensional network of pointers that refer to additional arguments, or links that remit to other online content, such as websites, texts, videos, or photos. This way, the text structure should be envisioned as a complex molecular model; one can rearrange pieces of information, enlarge sentences, and ask for the definition of words. No longer linear, reading begins to be made by associations, in an infinite network of text fragments. The reader is the one who is responsible for making these associations, participating actively in the creation of meaning. Text looses its beginning and its end, and there is no last word; there is always a new vision, a new idea, a new interpretation. The process is defined as interactive and collaborative between reader and author.
This change in the reading modes is also evidenced by the obvious transition from an intensive to an extensive reading. While intensive reading is characterized by being mediated and recurrent, extensive reading is broad and informative. It is the result of the industrialization of memory and mass dissemination of information. Today, these modes were radicalized in two types of reading: speed and deep reading. Whereas speed reading consists on a set of techniques that aim at a faster reading, deep reading can be defined as the slow possession of a book. Since speed reading is most commonly associated with the practice of reading text on an electronic display, it is known as screen reading. Similarly, deep reading can also be known as print or close reading.
Within digital environments, another concept arises, the one of hyperreading. It was introduced in 1999 by James Sosnoski, who defined it as a reader-directed, screen based, computer-assisted reading. Examples include search queries (as in a Google search), filtering by keywords, skimming, hyperlinking, “pecking” (pulling out a few items from a longer text), and fragmenting. Updating his model, it is also possible to add juxtaposing, as when several open windows allow one to read across several texts, and scanning, as when one reads rapidly through a blog or Web page to identify items of interest. In contemporary digital environments hyperreading has become a necessity. It enables a reader to quickly construct landscapes of associated research fields and subfields; it shows ranges of possibilities; it identifies texts and passages most relevant to a given query; and it easily juxtaposes many different texts and passages. Google searches and keyword filters are now as much part of people’s tool kit as hyperreading itself. Yet hyperreading or screen reading may not sit easily alongside close reading. Although there are similarities between these reading modes, it has been proved that readers use distinct techniques and behave differently while reading from a screen than they do while reading from a page. In addition, there is considerable evidence that screen reading and hyperreading stimulate different brain functions.
Analysing reading is not a simple task and a distinction has been drawn between assessing reading behaviour in terms of outcome and process measures. Outcome measures concentrate on what the reader gets from the text and considers such variables as amount of information retrieved, accuracy of recall, time taken to read the text, and so forth. Process measures are more concerned with how the reader uses a text and include such variables as where the reader looks in the text and how he manipulates it.
In terms of outcome measures, by far the most common experimental finding is that screen reading is slower than reading from paper. Early studies showed that reading on a screen was 20% to 30% slower than reading in print, but the difference is fading as devices improve. A recent survey showed that it is now just 6,2% slower to read on an iPad than in print, and just 10,7% slower using a Kindle. Perhaps more important than the questions of speed of reading is the effect of presentation medium on comprehension. Some studies showed that there is no disadvantage to comprehension between reading on paper and reading on screen. But though the data showed no difference, readers thought they retained more when they read on paper. Kate Garland, one of the few scientists who studied this question, found that when the exact same material is presented in both media, there is no measurable difference in student performance. However, there are some subtle discussions that favour print, which may matter in the long run. In one study involving psychology students, the medium did seem to matter. After confronting the students with new information, two differences emerged: first, more repetition was required with computer reading to impart the same information; second, the book readers seemed to digest the material more fully. But why should hypertext and screen reading in general lead to poorer comprehension? The answer lies, according to Nicholas Carr, in the relation of working memory (i.e., the contents of consciousness) to long-term memory. Material is held in working memory for only a few minutes, and the capacity of working memory is severely limited. The small distractions involved with hypertext and screen reading — clicking on links, navigating a page, scrolling down or up, and so on — increase the cognitive load on working memory and thereby reduce the amount of new material it can hold. With linear reading, by contrast, the cognitive load is at a minimum, because fewer decisions need to be made about how to read the material and in what order. Hence the transfer to long-term memory happens more efficiently, especially when readers reread passages and pause to reflect on them as they go along.
When it comes to process measures, the main obstacle to obtaining accurate process data is devising a suitable, non-intrusive observation method. The three of the most commonly cited process differences between reading digital and printed media are: eye movements, manipulation and navigation. Mills and Weldon argue that measures of eye movements reflect difficulty, discriminability, and comprehensibility of text and can therefore be used as a method of assessing the cognitive effort involved in reading text from paper or screen. Obviously, if reading from screen is different than paper, noticeable effects in eye movement patterns might be found. For example, Jakob Nielsen’s consulting team, which advises companies and others on effective Web design, does usability research by asking test subjects to deliver running verbal commentaries as they encounter Web pages. Their reactions are recorded by a (human) tester; at the same time, eye-tracking equipment records their eye movements. This research showed that Web pages are typically read in an “F” pattern (Nielsen, “F-Shaped”). A person reads the first two or three lines across the page, but as the eye travels down the screen, the scanned length gets smaller, and, by the time the bottom of the page is reached, the eye is travelling in a vertical line aligned with the left margin — therefore, the worst location for important information on a Web page is on the bottom right corner. In Bauerlein’s view, this research confirms that digital reading is sloppy in the extreme. Nevertheless, other research indicates that this and similar strategies work well to identify pages of interest and to distinguish them from pages with little or no relevance to the topic at hand.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between reading from paper and from screens is the manner in which a reader moves through a document, how he manipulates it — scrolling and paging are the most common ones. Manipulating paper is achieved by manual dexterity, turning pages, keeping one finger in a section as a location aid, or flicking through tens of pages while browsing the contents of a document. On the contrary, progressing through an electronic document might involve using a mouse or a scroll bar in one application, or function keys in another. Such differences will almost certainly affect reading. Waller suggests that as readers need to articulate their needs in manipulating electronic texts, a distraction of cognitive resources required for comprehension can occur. And the truth is that people are frequently distracted when working with digital devices. They switch simple activities an average of every three minutes (e.g., reading e-mail or instant message), and switch projects about every ten and a half minutes. Some scientists worry that screen reading will lead to changes in brain function that will make sustained concentration more difficult. This would leave us in a constant state of distraction, longing for continuous stimulation.
Finally, the third difference between reading on a screen and on a page lies in the concept of navigation. When reading a lengthy document, the reader will need to find his way through the information in a manner that has been likened to navigating in a physical environment. There is a striking consensus among many researchers in the field that this process is one of the greatest difficulties for readers of electronic text. This is particularly — but not uniquely — the case with hypertext, where frequent reference is made to “getting lost in hyperspace” which is described as “the user not having a clear conception of the relationships within the system or knowing his present location in the system relative to the display structure and finding it difficult to decide where to look next within the system”. With paper documents there tends to be at least some standards in terms of organization. With books, for example, contents pages are usually at the front, indices at the back, and both offer some information on where items are located in the body of the text. Concepts of relative position in the text such as “before” or “after” have tangible physical correlates. No such correlation holds with hypertext, and such concepts are greatly diminished in standard electronic reading. Physicality, context and landmarks are truly important. There is evidence to suggest that readers establish a visual association with the location of items within a text. The more associations a particular memory can trigger, the more easily it tends to be recalled. Consequently, seemingly irrelevant factors, like remembering whether something was read at the top or the bottom of page — or whether it was on the right or left hand side of a two-page spread or near a graphic — can help cement material in mind.
An electronic text is physically different from a paper one. Therefore, many researchers have examined these aspects of the medium in an attempt to explain the performance differences. An exhaustive programme of work conducted by Gould and his colleagues at IBM between 1982 and 1987 represents probably the most rigorous and determined research effort. They tried to isolate a single variable responsible for observed differences. In the search for an explanation of the observed performance differences between reading from paper and from screens, features like orientation, visual angle, aspect ratio, flicker, image polarity, anti-aliasing and other display characteristic were examined. However, no variable was likely to be responsible for such difference.
Issues related to fonts, such as line spacing, character size, or character spacing have also been subjected to detailed research. Still, the results were not concluding.
There is yet no definite research on reading modes or behaviours, or whether reading on paper is a more enriching experience than reading on screen — or vice versa. Many more studies on the subject are needed in order to know how the brain reacts to the new reading experiences and to different materials.
Professor Alan Liu stated: “any new information medium seems to degrade reading because it disturbs the balance between focal and peripheral attention”. For instance, Plato complained that writing resulted in people forgetting how to memorize. Later, people in England complained that newspapers detracted from reading books. It is no different now. Readers are no longer monogamous, loyal to a single source; rather, they read voraciously, looking for patterns, teasing out the things that matter to them, making connections. Reading is evolving. Like all technologies, reading — as well as and writing — is dynamic.
Until the 11th century, people wrote text without spaces between the words. Gutenberg’s printing press changed that standard. What changes can we expect in the future? Now it is the time to think about how we read; to rethink what reading is, and how it works in the rich mixtures of words and images, sounds and animations, graphics and letters. Within this context, and specifically in the realm of design, new questions arise: how can the future of reading be designed? is it possible to design reading behaviours? what does design still have to offer?