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100 Things You Should Know About People: #14 — Reading Text Online Is Not Fun



Page Full of Text
Page Full of Text

It’s the holiday season right now in the USA which means that people are talking about what they want as a gift. I would like a Kindle or one of the new Barnes and Noble competitors to the Kindle. Since we are being frugal in our household this year I don’t think I’m going to get one (and I haven’t read the reviews yet to see whether I want the Kindle or the new B&N competitor).

Is a Kindle the same as text online? — It might seem contradictory, then, for me to say I want a Kindle and then write a post about the idea that reading text online is not fun. But actually I am not talking about the same thing at all. I’ve tried a Kindle, and the liquid ink technology is different than LCD displays on a laptop or a desktop monitor. Reading text on a computer screen is admittedly better than it was years ago. I go back to the dreaded “green screen” days, and I can say with certainty that reading text on my MacBook Pro is a lot better than reading text on the green (or amber — how many of you remember amber?) and black screens from yester year.

It’s the luminescence — Computer screens however, have a different lighting display than the Kindle, and certainly are different than reading on paper. When you are reading text on paper the light is reflected off the paper and back to your eyes. When you are reading text on a computer screen the reflections of room or sunlight are different.

So what’s the result? — The result is that reading text online is tiring to the eyes. People are only going to read a limited amount of text at a time on a computer screen. If you want people to read text on a computer screen you have to do the following:

Break the text up into chunks –– use bullets, short paragraphs, pictures and any other means you can to break the text up. People will read a few lines of text on a computer screen and then skip to the next paragraph, so break it up.

Use a font that is easy to read — There have been “font wars” for years. The research shows that the font you use is not a big deal as long as it is basically readable. Meaning don’t use an overly decorative font for a block of text.

Use a font size that is easy to read — Even younger people complain about small fonts.

Use black text on a white background or close to that — You need enough difference between foreground and background. Black text on a white background is the most readable.

Make the content worth it — In the end it all boils down to whether what is on the page is of interest to the reader. If it is then the reader will be more patient with having to read the text online.

So what do you think? Do you have a Kindle or the new B&N device? Do you think it is different than reading text on a computer screen? Are you an avid text reader online?

If you are interested in reading the research about font type and reading more about typography and readability here are two great websites:


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5 responses to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #14 — Reading Text Online Is Not Fun”

  1. Nasif Avatar

    I agree with you that reading text on a computer is different from reading text on a paper. I have many text books in pdf format for my courses but I rarely read them cause most of the time I read I skip many of the text, even if I read each and every lines I can’t seem to get the points or understand the concept related to my course. Reading each and every line requires tremendous brainwork from the my point of view and this makes me stressful. So sometimes I print the text on a paper or I buy the books from a shop or borrow from a friend. When reading on a paper I can understand and can grab the concept fully. You can say I am not a great fan of reading text on pc…

  2. Cynthia Despain Avatar

    Generally I don’t post on too many blogs but I just wanted to say that was great post. Great Kindle info. Thanks.

  3. Shannon Avatar

    I hate so much, when people don’t break up the text on their blog at least between paragraphs.

    I literally cannot read more than 3 words and then I’m frustrated and sometimes even miffed, especially when the person is a so called expert in marketing or social media.

    They are obviously, in my mind – only an expert in those fields, in their own minds. Very infuriating!

  4. Programmer Dude Avatar
    Programmer Dude

    I’ve been a programmer for 33 years; I predate monitors (and I do indeed remember green and amber). Until recently (last ten years or so), a common experience was to spend hours starring at the screen trying to find a vexing bug. Finally, the work day would end, so I’d print out a listing to read during the evening. Frequently–more often than not–the bug would jump off the page. Sometimes I’d spot it leafing through the pages while walking from the printer back to my desk.

    Clearly there was a major difference in my ability to understand the text on the monitor verses my ability to understand the text on the printed page.

    I decided there were several factors. First, fonts of the day barely deserved the name “font”. Characters expressed as 5×7 dots or 6×9 or whatever simply do not form highly readable words. Second, bright, colored (green or amber or even white) dots on a black background are foreign to anyone who grew up with printed reading material (I was able to improve readability once I had tools that allowed a white background and black text). Third, I do believe the horizontal monitor face was a factor (which may be one other reason the Kindle works well.)

    I realized about ten years ago I no longer needed to kill trees and that my 22″ widescreen, high def monitor gave me as good a “view” of the source as I needed. I haven’t printed a code listing in a long time.

    I’m not sure I agree about the luminance, per se. What really is the difference between black text on a white monitor background verses a brightly-lit piece of white paper with black text? I suspect that if you lit the paper with as many lumens as come from your monitor, you’d find the paper more a problem. I have often had good luck improving monitor readability by turning down the brightness just a little. I think it’s a case of brightness alone, not transmission verses reflectance.

    With regard to fonts, conventional wisdom in the printing industry used to be that sans-serif fonts were less readable than serif fonts. The theory being that the serifs lead the eye along the line of text. Because computer monitor fonts still don’t quite have the resolution of printed text (although the ePaper of the Kindle may be a step up), serif fonts are considered cleaner and thus more easy to read. You’ll find most printed material uses serif fonts, whereas most online material uses sans-serif fonts.

    [rambling ends]

  5. Graw!!! Avatar

    I agree with much of what you said. Although personally I prefer to read websites with a black background and light text, preferably white. I find that it helps make the eyes not quite so tired.

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