May 11, 2007

Improving the Readability of Text Online

A company called Walker Reading Technologies has produced research showing that the human brain is not "wired" to read text in the traditional way we print it, which is in blocks. In short, we're constantly filtering out text that surrounds what we're trying to actually read. This filtering impedes our comprehension of the material.

Supposedly, the optimal format is a series of "short, cascading phrases" that look really odd but are easier for the human brain to comprehend. Of course, Walker Research makes a product that reformats text in this manner automatically :-) Apparently the company has improved some test scores by simply putting tests in this new format. A major textbook publisher also has contracted Walker Research for help with online textbooks.

I'm skeptical about company-conducted research that conveniently provides an excuse for purchasing a product from the same company. But the theory is still interesting. NI does a lot of documentation "online," meaning shipped as HTML. And the very essence of our jobs depends on readers comprehending the material. Maybe this new theory means we'll someday

be writing documentation

like this?

Edit: A link to the ensuing Slashdot discussion.


  1. Ryan (Hi!),

    This is like drug companies publishing the results of clinical studies, dontcha think? :) Thought I'd drop by to say "Hello."

    Personally, I find the cascading text to be difficult to read and the amount of white space between the lines distracting. I've been reading block text since I was two-years-old (in "Cosmopolitan," no less), so maybe I'm bias since I'm so used to it? Hm. Perhaps.


  2. Hey, long time no see. Hope things are well with you :-)

    Yeah I'm not sure if I agree with having my documentation turned into what is essentially poetry. Although that would be a neat assignment for an English class, haha.

    Also I've seen lots of people read online by using the mouse to highlight the sentence they're reading. I guess this is analogous to holding a bookmark under the line of text you're reading. I guess it doesn't bother me either way because, like you said, I've been reading text like that since forever.