How People Read
Excerpted from 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People (New Riders)
By Susan Weinschenk
With adult literacy rates now over 80 percent worldwide, reading is a primary form of communication for most people. But how do we read? And what should designers know about reading?
13. It’s a Myth that Capital Letters are Inherently Hard to Read
You’ve probably heard that words in uppercase letters are harder to read than those in mixed case or lowercase. You’ve probably even heard some kind of percentage cited, such as “between 14 and 20 percent harder.” The story goes that we read by recognizing the shapes of words and groups of words. Words in mixed case or lowercase letters have unique shapes. Words in capital letters have the same shape — a rectangle of a certain size — so, in theory, they’re harder to distinguish.
This explanation sounds plausible, but it’s not really accurate. There’s no research showing that the shapes of words help us read more accurately or more quickly. A psycholinguist named James Cattell came up with that idea in 1886. There was some evidence for it then, but more recent work by Kenneth Paap (1984) and Keith Rayner (1998) has revealed that what we’re actually doing when we read is recognizing and anticipating letters. And then, based on the letters, we recognize the word. Let’s look more closely at how we read.
Reading Isn’t as Fluid as it Seems
The illustration below shows an example of the saccade and fixation pattern. The black dots are the fixations and the curved lines are the saccade movements.
So, Is All Caps Harder to Read Then?
14. Reading and Comprehending are Two Different Things
If you’re a biologist, then this paragraph might make sense right away:
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 syntehtase and citrate syntase.
If you’re not a biologist, then it might take you a long time to understand what that paragraph says. You can read the paragraph, but that doesn’t mean you understand it. New information is assimilated more thoroughly when it is plugged into existing cognitive structures.
Can you Read this Paragraph?
When you read you don’t absorb exact letters and words and then interpret them later. You anticipate what will come next. The more previous knowledge you have the easier it is to anticipate and interpret.
Titles and Headlines are Critical
First you sort the items into like categories. Using color for sorting is common, but you can also use other characteristics, such as texture or type of handling needed. Once you have sorted the items, you are ready to use the equipment. You want to process each category from the sorting separately. Place one category in the machine at a time.
What is the paragraph about? It’s hard to understand. But what if I give you the same paragraph with a title:
Using your New Washing Machine
The paragraph is still poorly written, but now at least it is understandable.
What You Remember of What you Read Depends on Your Point of View
15. Pattern Recognition Helps People Identify Letters in Different Fonts
People have been debating which fonts are better, easier to read, or most appropriate for centuries. One such debate centers around the use of two types of fonts: serif versus sans serif. Some argue that sans serif typefaces are easier to read because they are plain; others contend that serif fonts are easier to read because the serifs draw the eye toward the next letter. In fact, research shows no difference in comprehension, reading speed, or preference between serif and sans serif fonts.
Designers use fonts to evoke a mood, brand, or association. Some font families invoke a time period (old fashioned versus modern), while others convey seriousness or playfulness. In terms of readability, however, the font you choose is not critical as long as it is not so decorative as to make it hard to identify the letters. Some fonts interfere with the brain’s ability to recognize patterns.
The illustration below shows different decorative fonts. The first font is relatively easy to read; the others become progressively more difficult. They make it hard for the brain to recognize the patterns of the letters.
If a Font is Hard to Read, The Meaning of the Text Will Be Lost
16. Font Size Matters
When it comes to fonts, size matters a lot. The font size needs to be big enough for users to read the text without strain. And it’s not just older individuals who need fonts to be bigger — young people also complain when font sizes are too small to read.
Some fonts can be the same size, but look bigger, due to the x-height. The x-height is literally the height of the small letter x in the font family. Different fonts have different x-heights, and as a result, some fonts look larger than others, even though they are the same point size.
The illustration below shows how the font size and x-heights are measured.
Some newer font families, such as Tahoma and Verdana, have been designed with large x-heights so they are easier to read on a screen. The illustration below shows different font families that are all the same point size. Some look bigger, however, because of their larger x-height.
17. Reading a Computer Screen is Harder than Reading Paper
Computer screens, Kindles, and paper create different reading experiences. When you read on a computer screen the image is not stable — it is being refreshed constantly, and the screen is emitting light. When you read text on paper the image is stable (not being refreshed), and instead of emitting light the paper is reflecting light. The refreshing of the image and emitting of the light on the computer display are tiring on the eyes. Electronic ink (as in the Kindle) mimics the appearance of ink on paper. It reflects light and holds the text stable without refreshing.
To make text on a computer screen easier to read, make sure you use a large enough font and create enough contrast between foreground and background. The illustration below shows the best combination to use for readability: black text on a white background.
18. People Read Faster with a Longer Line Length, But they Prefer a Shorter Line Length
Have you ever had to decide what column width to use on a screen? Should it be a wide column with 100 characters per line? Or a short column with 50 characters per line? Or something in between? The answer depends on whether you want people to read faster or to like the page.
Mary Dyson (2004) conducted research on line length, and combed other studies to determine what line length people prefer. Her work showed that 100 characters per line is the optimal length for on-screen reading speed; but we prefer a short or medium line length (45 to 72 characters per line). The illustration below shows examples of a short and long line length.
The research also found that we can read a single wide column faster than multiple columns, but we prefer multiple columns.
If you ask people which they prefer, they will say multiple columns with short line lengths. Interestingly, if you ask them which they read faster, they will insist it is also the multiple columns with short line lengths, even though the data shows otherwise.
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Excerpted from 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People by Susan Weinschenk. Copyright © 2011. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and and New Riders.