Myth: People Read Less Online

Once again, the old story about people not reading on the web is getting attention. As Dean Allen wrote ten years ago, it goes like this:

Users don’t read
Users only scan
Users haven’t got
No attention span

I hate to get vulgar when it’s not even Friday yet, but this is bullshit.

Even in this current incarnation, there’s a critically important dodge:

Because users are in a hurry to find the very piece of information they’re looking for which is exactly what they normally do when reading newspaper articles and non-fiction books. They scan to skip the irrelevant.

In other words, people read on the web almost exactly the way they read anywhere else: they skim till they find what they need. This is manifestly not the same thing as “users don’t read,” and claiming that it is will almost certainly lead to stupid content and UX choices. The whole anti-reading campaign is based on a fundamental misunderstanding about the ways in which people read printed text, and the difference between their behaviors as online and offline readers.

In fact, people read more deeply online than they do in print, and on the web, “scanners” tend to read about as much text as “methodical readers.” Go read the whole Poynter EyeTrack ‘07 report site. It’s excellent, as is Leen Jones’s post on the subject.

15 thoughts on “Myth: People Read Less Online

  1. [*Sputtering] The ridiculous “people don’t read online” and “make it simple, stupid” blanket mantras regarding web content have done a complete disservice to the profession, and everyone has suffered–esp. stakeholders and users.

    These pronouncements, even from national content “experts,” led people to believe that doing content was easy.

    Thus, in 2010, still, we have 13th hour content deliveries, generally lame content, and only a recent formal acknowledgment that there should be some sort of strategy behind digital publishing.

  2. I thought the whole scanning argument started going out the door with the revolt against list posts in 2009…

    As a designer, I’ve seen many of my online peers shift and demand more thought-provoking articles.

    I do admit that I consider myself to scan online quite often, though not all the time.

  3. As most arguments are, this one too is probably offered by people who stand to benefit from it. I believe they are creating a reality rather then describing one.

    That said, my experience of Internet reading is:
    – It is less pleasant to read on screen then on paper.
    – The internet is a heap of garbage content with rare pearls of quality.
    – It took me years of sifting (with periods of giving up) to find and link to sources I enjoy reading – and this is a dynamic and changing process.
    – Like paper (or I suppose any medium), the Internet can be used and abused.
    – The Internet is a medium that lends itself to abuse – because the cost of doing so is cheaper (while the cost of use – creating quality content – remains the same and sometimes even higher).

  4. Thanks for the post. You’re right: They mantra “users don’t read” led in the wrong direction to another mantra called “anybody could do good content”….

    They key to way users read content is found in their motivation…

  5. To be clear, I don’t think that the usability people who’ve pushed this notion have done so because they hate content. I just think it’s very tempting to combine web-based usability studies with a very non-rigorous understanding of how people read offline, and end up with bad conclusions.

    One of the reasons I’ve been thinking about this is my own anecdotal experience with print vs. online reading. As a grad student, I’ve “read” 1000+ pages a week of dense academic material — which means I’ve scanned it for overall understanding and read only a fraction of it more carefully. On the web, though, as with printed fiction, I tend to settle in and read carefully, especially now that I use Instapaper and Readability for most of my reading. I was delighted to find the Poynter research that suggests I’m not alone in this.

  6. I spent thousands of hours on this topic working on the EyeTrack07 project and during my doctoral research. As with many things, this myth came from overgeneralizations. Same thing holds true for our data — context and assumptions are critical in understanding how information is consumed and processed.

  7. Thanks for bringing this up. Yes, people read AND scan. The trick is to make it scannable so people can see if they want to read in depth or so they can find what they want quickly, and then once they know they want to read something, they’re willing to dig in and read it. Of course, as with anything else, it depends. Buying shoes may be different from choosing a computer or learning how to improve your work or reading a book review. But meanwhile, all the talk of “you have to have bullet points and it has to be short” — regardless of the type of content— makes some clients fearful of providing the information that visitors want or need and some designers nervous about having more than a blip of content in places where more would be better.

    I’d also add that some articles at ALA and elsewhere, including by Mandy Brown, have pointed to making the page and typography readable and the importance of white space. But that’s true when speaking of print, too, as you imply in your post here.

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  9. Absolutely. I explain to content owners that the content has to “support scanning” because it increases people’s ability to absorb the content: Making a page scannable increases readers’ attention span because they can better decide where and on what to focus that attention.

    Thanks for the great post!!!!

    Stephen

  10. I agree with the spirit of this article, but I believe a more accurate statement of the contemporary user is that he/she does not, in fact, READ online. He/she VIEWS.

    This isn’t bad, this isn’t stupid, and this doesn’t mean information isn’t absorbed as well–perhaps better and with more accurate context–than by reading every single word. It does mean that we producers of online communication must give shape to our information, provide a clear path.

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  14. Exactly! People read the pages just like a newspaper. Or anything real. Any articles that are more than 10 years ago are completely irrelevant. When a man thinks, he will:). People send links to articles from the year 97 or 2001. This is total crap! The Internet is changing, as well as users. These old articles are already useless.

    People access the text on the Web as well as to anything else. Just read what interests them.

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