We are born with the capability to speak, but not the capability to read. In this HumanTech podcast we look at the research on how the brain “steals” resources in order to learn to read.
HumanTech is a podcast at the intersection of humans, brain science, and technology. Your hosts Guthrie and Dr. Susan Weinschenk explore how behavioral and brain science affects our technologies and how technologies affect our brains.
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[A note from the author, Susan Weinschenk: “On October 25, 2009 I wrote my first “100 Things” blog post: “100 Things You Should Know About People: #1 — You Have ‘Inattention Blindness.” I didn’t know at the time that that series of 100 blog posts would turn into my book 100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People. That book continues to be popular all over the world, and I am very grateful and very glad to have struck a chord with so many people.
So much so, that I decided to keep going. I’ve recently published 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People, and so I’ve decided to pick up where I left off on my blog posts and take it through the next 100! I hope you enjoy, and if you want the full information and / or don’t want to wait to read it via the separate posts, then check out the new book (info at the end of this post). So here’s the first one, #101 of Things You Should Know About People.”]
Tony Haile (CEO of Chartbeat — a company that analyzes real-time web analytics) analyzed 2 billion online interactions, most of them from online articles and news sites, and found that 55 percent of the time people spend less than 15 seconds on a page, which means they’re not reading the news articles.
Hmmm, it likely took you 15 seconds to read the above paragraph, so maybe I’ve already lost you.
Clicking and/or sharing doesn’t equal reading — A lot of money has changed hands over pay-per-click and page views, both of which measure the success of online advertising by counting clicks. Haile says that’s the wrong measurement — Instead of clicks, we should concentrate on the amount of attention the audience gives, and whether they come back.
Another action that is traditionally sought after is sharing on social media. Can you assume that if people share an article, for example, on Facebook, or tweet about it, that they’ve read what they’re sharing?
The relationship between reading and sharing is weak — Articles that are read all the way through aren’t necessarily shared. Articles that are shared have likely not been read past 60 percent.
According to Adrianne Jeffries, Buzzeed and Upworthy report that most tweets occur either at 25 percent through the article or at the end of the article, but not much in between those two extremes.
Takeaways (if you even got this far!):
Don’t assume people are reading the whole article.
Put your most important information before the 60 percent point of the article.
When you want people to share the article, remind them to do that about 25 percent of the way through the article and again at the end.
Don’t assume that if people shared the article that means they read all or even most of it.
For more information:
Haile, Tony. 2014. “What You Think You Know about the Web Is Wrong.” http://time. com/12933/what-you-think-you-know-about-the-web-is-wrong
Adrienne. 2014. “You’re Not Going to Read This.” http://www.theverge. com/2014/2/14/5411934/youre-not-going-to-read-this
If you liked this article (and if you actually read to the end!), you might want to check out my new book, 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People.
Lastly, It might be too late to ask this (more than 25% through the article!): If you liked this article, please share it with your network.
I’ve been a fan of Kevin Larson’s writing about fonts, typography and online reading for some time. I mention him in my latest book, 100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People.
Kevin is a reading psychologist that works with typographers at Microsoft. He’s part of a team at Microsoft with a goal to make reading online as easy and enjoyable as reading from paper. I recently interviewed Kevin for a podcast.
When it comes to fonts, size matters a lot. The font size needs to be big enough so that people can read it without strain.
Not just old folks — For older people this is critical. Starting in their 40’s, most people have increasing difficulty reading small fonts. But it’s not just older people that need fonts to be bigger. I’ve conducted many usability tests on web sites and heard people in their late teens and early 20’s make spontaneous comments about the font being too small.
x-height magic — Some fonts can be the same size as others, but look bigger, due to the x-height. The x-height is literally the height of the small letter x in the font family. Look at the illustration at the top of the post to see how the x-height is measured. Different fonts have different x-heights, and as a result, some fonts look larger than others, even though they are the same font point size.
If you are a biologist, then the paragraph below might make sense to you:
“The regulation of the TCA cycle is largely determined by substrate availability and product inhibition. NADH, a product of all of the deydrogenases in the TCA cycle, with the exception of succinate dehydrogenase, inhibits pyruvate dehydrogenase, isocitrate dehydrogenase, a-ketoglutarate dehydrogenase, while succinyl-CoA inhibits succinyl-CoA synthetase and citrate syntase.”
But if you are not a biologist, it might take you a long time to understand what that paragraph says. You can technically read the paragraph, but that doesn’t mean you understand it. In order to understand information you need one or both of the following:
You will understand new information more easily if there is already a framework of knowledge to fit it into.
The information needs to be at the appropriate reading level.
The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Score – The most common formula for calculating the readability of a particular passage of text is the Flesch-Kincaid method. The method gives you a Reading Ease formula and also a reading grade level score.
The formula to calculate how readable your text is:
The higher the score the easier the passage is to read. Low scores mean the passage is hard to read.
An online tool for calculating readability – Luckily, you don’t actually have to use the fomula. Some word processing software has the Flesch-Kincaid formula built in. Or you can use this online tool:
to calculate the reading level of a particular passage. The calculator gives you a Reading Ease Score as well as a Grade Level Score.
I decided to try out the calculator. First I used a paragraph from the State of Colorado Governor’s website:
This web page had a reading level of Grade 12 and a reading ease score of 40. Americans average a reading level of Grade 8, so 12 is harder than the average American can read. For the reading ease score, higher is better. Comic books are at 90, and legal documents are often 10 and under.
Next I tried out the calculator on the State of Wyoming Governor’s home page:
Not much difference – a Grade level of 11 and a Reading Ease score of 42.
Feeling quite smug, I decided I would run one of my blog posts through the calculator:
Uh oh! Reading Grade level of 15 and Reading Ease score of 55?! The Reading Ease is not too bad, but Grade level 15 is a bit high. Well, I knew my readers were smart!
What do you think? Do you ever test the readability level of what you write online?
For those of you who like to read the research:
Stedman, L. and Kaestle, C. (1991) Literacy and reading performance in the United States from 1880 to present. In Kaestle, C. (ed.) Literacy in the United States: Readers and Readings Since 1880. Yale University Press, New Haven, pp. 75–128.
Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, the oredr of lteetrs in a wrod is nto vrey iprmoetnt. Waht mttaers is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The ohter letetrs can be a ttoal mses and you can sitll raed wthuot mcuh probelm. Tihs is bcauseae yuor brian deos not raed ervey lteter, but raeds wrods and gruops of wrods.
I came across a similar paragraph in a book on Cognitive Psychology (Solso, 2005).
What our eyes see is not what our brain ends up with — We think that we are walking around looking at the world around us with our eyes, and that our eyes are sending information to the brain which processes it and gives us a realistic experience of “what’s out there”. But the truth is that what our brain comes up with is not exactly what our eyes are actually seeing.
The great interpreter — Our brain is constantly interpreting everything it sees. Take, for example, the picture below:
What do you see? Your first reaction is probably that you are looking at a triangle with a black border in the background, and a white triangle upside down on top of it. Of course that’s not really what is there, is it? What’s there are some partial lines and some partial circles. Your brain creates the shape of an upside down triangle out of blank space, because that is what it is expecting to see. This particular illusion is called a Kanizsa triangle, named after an Italian psychologist (G. Kanizsa) that first came up with it in 1955.
Shortcuts to the world — Our brains create these shortcuts in order to try and quickly make sense out of the world around us. There are so many (millions) of sensory inputs coming into our brain every second, that it has to try to make it all make sense. So it uses rules of thumb, and extrapolates what it has experience with, to make guesses about what it is seeing. Most of the time that works, but sometimes it causes errors.
What you design may not be what people see — The take-away is that what we think people are going to see may not be what they do see. It might depend on their background, knowledge, familiarity with what they are looking at, and expectations. Conversely, we might be able to persuade people to see things in a certain way, depending on how they are presented. Here’s another example from the Solso book:
By using different colored backgrounds we can draw attention and change the meaning of the sign.
What do you think? Do you think designers use these principles to draw attention on purpose? If you are a designer do you use these ideas? If we can read so well with all these misspellings, are typos even a problem?
Here’s the Solso book reference: Cognitive Psychology, edited by Solso, 7th edition, Allyn and Bacon, 2005.
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WHAT YOU ARE ABOUT TO READ IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IS COMMONLY BELIEVED, BUT NOT TRUE — You read by recognizing the shapes of words and groups of words. Words that are in all capital letters all have the same shape: a rectangle of a certain size. This makes words displayed in all uppercase harder to read than upper and lower case (known as “mixed case”). Mixed case words are easier to read because they make unique shapes, as demonstrated by the picture below.
OK, NOW THE TRUE STUFF STARTS — When I started this article the topic was supposed to be why all capital letters are harder to read. Like most people with a usability background or a cognitive psychology background, I can describe the research — just what I wrote in the first paragraph above. I decided to look up and cite the actual research rather than just passing on the general knowledge and belief.
The research doesn’t exist, or “It’s complicated” — Something happened when I went to find the research on the shape of words and how that is related to all capital letters being harder to read. There isn’t research showing that exactly. It’s more complicated, and ultimately, more controversial. In July of 2004 Kevin Larson wrote an article that is posted at the Microsoft website that explains in depth all the research on this topic. I’ve picked out several ideas from that article and am presenting them here. A link to Kevin’s article, plus some of his research citations are at the end of this blog for those of you who want more detail. Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #19 — It’s a Myth That All Capital Letters Are Inherently Harder to Read”