assorted-title of books piled in the shelves




Many people now do some of their reading (as defined in the section above) on paper and some on an electronic device. The world seems split these days between people who like reading physical books and those who prefer reading on a device.

Even with e-readers that use electronic ink and therefore have a different screen than a tablet or phone, is reading an e-reader a different experience than reading a physical book? Does the sensory experience of reading a book make a difference? If so, in what way?

The Multisensory Experience Of Physical Books

The design of tactile experiences is called “haptics,” which refers specifically to applying tactile sensation to a human-computer interaction.

There are many differences in the tactile experience of reading a physical book and the current haptic of reading on an e-reader or tablet. Even though the ink on the page may be similar, books have other tactile features that the haptic interface on an e-reader doesn’t have, at least as of the time I’m writing this book.

A physical book has weight, and the feeling of weight is different from book to book. The physical weight affects people’s perception of the importance of the work. Research on embodied cognition shows that when people hold something heavy, they think it is more important. With an e-reader, all books weigh the same amount. The same is true of a thin book versus a thick book. The number of pages and the thickness of a physical book is part of the experience of the book.

When you read a book, you can feel the paper. Turning the pages of a book requires a different movement than turning the pages when reading on a device. The pages of a physical book make a sound when you turn the page. There’s a sound when you close the cover of a large, hardcover book.

You can even smell some books. I was a reader at an early age, and the smell of old books can still take me back in my memory to being a young child in the public library with my mother, running my hands over the spines of old novels, excited about what I would read.
Reading a physical book is a multisensory experience that involves touch, smell, sight, and sound. Reading on a device involve touch and sight, but they’re the same for all books; there’s some sound, but not like a physical book, and no smell.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Luddite. I do most of my reading these days on a device. But I know that it’s not the same as a physical book.

The Navigation And Mental Map Of A Book

People can navigate physical books in a way that they can’t with a device. A physical book is like a landscape. People map a physical book when they’re reading. Their memory of a certain section is tied to the physicality of the book. If I ask you, “Where’s the passage in the book where John expresses his doubts about Adam’s competency as a doctor?,” you’ll probably turn to a particular spot in the book, for example, about one-third in from the front. You might say, “I remember seeing that at the bottom of one of these pages on the left.” Your memory of the book is a physical memory. That type of physical “mapped” memory of reading doesn’t occur with devices.

Physical books have what Ferris Jabr (2013) calls a “topography” that devices don’t. When you have a book open, you have left and right pages. There are eight corners you can reference. You can see where you are in relation to the edges of the book, the corners, how far you’ve read on a page, and how far you’ve read in the book. Jabr says that these cues make it easy to not only navigate, but also create a mental map of the text.

When you read a book on a device you don’t have these navigation cues and you don’t have that mental map. You can navigate, but not in a way that creates a mental map.

Limited Navigation Impairs Comprehension

Anne Mangen’s (2013) research study in Norway had tenth graders of similar reading ability read and study a narrative passage (a story, either fiction or nonfiction) and an expository passage (text that explains, not in story form). Each passage was about 1,500 words long. Half the students read the passages on paper, and the other half read them as PDF files on a computer with a 15-inch LCD monitor. After reading the passages, the students took a reading comprehension test with both multiple-choice and short answer questions. During the test, they could refer to the passages. Students who read the texts on the computers had lower scores on the test than students who read the texts on paper.

Mangen watched the students reference the passages during the test. Students who worked with PDFs had more difficulty finding information. Those who read on paper held the paper in their hands and could quickly switch between pages. They could easily find the beginning, middle, and end, or anywhere in between.

Some research shows that students who read textbooks on a computer don’t remember the information as well in the long term. There’s a difference between “remembering” and “knowing.” When people “remember,” they recall a particular piece of information, and they often also recall the situation around it — where they were, where they learned it from, and so on. When people “know” something, they feel that it’s true, but they may not remember how they learned it. One theory by Kate Garland, a researcher at the University of Leicester, is that remembering is a weaker type of memory than knowing. Memories fade and knowing stays. Garland’s idea is that when students read on paper, they learn the material more thoroughly, which helps it turn into “knowing.”

Screens Are Harder On The Eyes

When you read text on paper, the paper reflects the light in the room. This is called ambient light. If you’re using an e-reader with e-ink, that also reflects ambient light. But if you’re reading on a computer monitor, smartphone, or tablet, you’re not using ambient light, at least as of the writing of this book. The light coming from a screen is harder to read and causes eyestrain.

Some researchers hypothesize that people learn or remember less information when reading from screens because they have to spend more visual energy reading the screen than they would reading a book.

Will People Just Get Used To It?

Because reading is something the brain learns to do, it’s possible that reading on devices is also something that our brains will get used to doing. It’s too early to know whether some of the disadvantages that researchers currently see for reading online compared to physical books are because reading online is less effective, or if people who grow up reading online first, or only reading online, will have brains that adapt.

The Role Of The Designer

Designers have created some innovations in online reading, such as e-ink, but in many ways we haven’t really designed an online reading experience. We just took letters and pictures and put them on a screen. The hardware is new and sometimes innovative, but the experience isn’t. Experience designers need to dig deeper into what reading is, and what books are, to build some of the multisensory aspects of reading a physical book into digital reading devices. We need to not just add features, like highlighting, but apply innovative design thinking to re-imagine the whole idea of digital books and digital reading. (Where’s my Harry Potter newspaper?)

In the meantime, we need to think about how best to deal with asking people to read online. If the experience is just OK, if it hampers learning and hurts people’s eyes, maybe we shouldn’t ask people to do it as much as we do. You’ll learn about some alternatives in the next section.


  • When designing a product that requires people to read online text, don’t assume they’ll remember what they read as well as when they read a physical book.
  • Rethink your use of text. Is it necessary to have people do so much reading online?
  • Since online books lose navigational cues, consider building in additional ways of navigating text online. Make sure it’s easy for people to go back, go forward, mark a section, and search.


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