10 things you really need to know about READING ON SCREEN for effective online design
1. Self-illuminated v reflected
Screens are backlit or the source of their own illumination, print relies wholly on reflected light. This is an important difference, in that self-lit screens can be seen and read in any light conditions and their brightness adjusted (manually or more commonly these days by sensor-based software). Screens, however, seem to allow the brain to spot non-proximate elements when you read and these can distract.
2. Screens vary in size
With responsive systems, online learning can be delivered on everything from a high definition desktop screen to all sorts of sizes on laptops, tablets and mobiles; whereas print tends to be designed for one format only – a book page, newspaper page or journal page. Be aware that you are publishing on screen for a huge variety of shapes and sizes, as the size and format of the text will change. This is why chunking matters. Chunk text down for screen and use more headings than with print.
3. Screens landscape, paper portrait
As a follow on point, most books, newspapers and journals are portrait, not landscape, whereas many screens (apart from mobiles) are landscape (tablets optional). This means that line length will vary enormously on screens but not on paper. The line length really can vary enormously from a few words on a mobile to overlong lines stretched across the whole of a landscape screen. You have to be aware of this elasticity in line length, as it affects readability and pushes you towards more highly edited text.
4. Scrolling is a feature of screens not print
When we access, say Wikipedia or most web pages for news and other information, we commonly scroll down the page. Much online learning restricts you to a non-scrollable page but increasingly it is becoming the norm, with authoring tools such as Adapt. You need to be aware of whether this functionality is present or not.
5. Navigation is different
Holding a book, newspaper or journal gives you a feel for where you are in terms of pages and the navigation is easy - turn the page, forwards or back. On screen you need to provide some sort of sense of where you are and progress in the text, whether it’s a progress bar or page x/y numbers. This is a design feature that you need to consider. Icons leading you forward and back may also be necessary.
6. Search possible on screen
Search is possible on screens, often used by users on computers but impossible in print, unless you count the clumsy mechanism of an index. This is a significant advantage, not only in finding text resources but also in finding an item within a text resource.
7. Hyperlinking is possible on screen
The humble hyperlink is something that paper does not have and can be used to good effect, for links out to more detail, glossary definitions or other navigational functions. Wikipedia is a good example of a text resource where the hyperlink is of significant advantage in vectoring through a subject or finding additional resources.
8. Paper usually professionally published
Books, newspapers, articles and academic papers are usually professionally published, with good layouts, use of fonts and therefore good readability. On screen text is more difficult to layout and polish, so often appears in layouts, formats and fonts that make them slightly more difficult to read. That is why you must pay attention to the rules that print publishing follow but also edit down to keep readability high. Layout, font choice, colour, sentence length may all need attention.
9. Paper has less distractions
Printed resources, at least most books, have only text on a page, screens often have a lot more items, as the text is embedded in a browser, word processor or web page where there’s lots of distractive navigational items and within the content more imagery in terms of images and video. The fact that more distractions are there means keeping the text clear and simple with lots of white space to aid isolation and readability.
10. Browse more on screen
We browse more on screens, in the sense that we skim and dart around looking for the pertinent cues. It’s almost like non-linear reading. This leads to the conclusion that you must avoid unnecessary distractions in terms of graphic elements, animation or audio, when you expect a learner to read. Unfortunately, many designers do the opposite and feel that the more movement and imagery you have the better, Media rich does not mean mind rich. It also important to realize that sentence length should be shorter and cues for important points given more emphasis, such as bold, italic and so on.
One last thing, when it comes to reading fatigue, research shows that it is the same on screen as on paper. Text is a great medium on both print and screen. Just be aware of the differences. The same is true, of course with graphics, photographs and video.
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