Screen reading - when less is more

by Malcolm Davison

How does reading from a computer screen affect reading speeds, and what factors need to be taken into account?

I chanced across an article on the web that interested me. Linking to it I found it ran to some considerable length, so I opted to print it out. But it turned out that there was little content of any value. I felt betrayed that a headline that promised so much linked to an article that delivered so little!

... some will simply be tired, pressured or impatient and in no mood to give the writer any favours with their time

Why didn’t the writer make allowances for screen reading and show more consideration for my time?

Let’s look at the facts:

  • 500 words equate to about a screen and a half, or an A4 printed page length
  • average readers take in 200 words per minute (wpm) on screen or 240wpm on paper and the 500 words take 2.5 minutes onscreen or two minutes on paper
  • inefficient readers and tired readers can manage only half this rate that’s five minutes’ screen reading or 4.5 minutes in print
  • fast readers can reach 700wpm – absorbing the same material in 43 seconds or 30 on paper

Why didn’t the writer make allowances for screen reading and show more consideration for my time?

So what does all this tell us?

Whether it’s an intranet or a corporate website we can expect a cross-section of readers will be struggling with a language that is not their mother tongue, while others will have slight or even serious reading difficulties.

A computer screen

Added to this in a business context, some will simply be tired, pressured or impatient and in no mood to give the writer any favours with their time. As communicators we have to make an extra effort to get our message across to everyone.

edit to less than half

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen relates on his website (www.useit.com) about the necessity of cutting text for the web by half, but so often we can edit much tighter than this. We could save as much as seven minutes of a slower reader’s time by editing an item that started at 1,000 words.

We simply need to decide what is crucial and structure and present the information in a readable and scannable form.

From a corporate standpoint we must recognise that web writing entails much extra work to save our target audience time and hassle.

Otherwise we must accept that the communication process will be less successful. When applied to a website, poor editing can even damage the corporate brand.

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