A significant portion of the reading I do is digital. I would suspect the same of many people today—afterall, there are now bookless libraries1.
There’s are plenty of opinions about the differences between reading on screens versus reading print on paper. I’ll save my opinions on the good and bad of both mediums for another post.
Today I want to point out one difference that is consistently noticeable and makes the online reading experience more difficult for me in some ways.
Many formats (or interfaces) through which online copy is delivered make judging the amount of content difficult. Simply put, indicators of quantity (or length) are vague and inconsistent. In many cases, the scroll bar is our most commonly available point of reference, which is a problem for reasons I’ll discuss below. Here’s a simple example:
When I load this article about the iPhone 6, I have no idea how much time to budget for it. On first glance, the scroll bar might suggest that it’s a fairly long read. In reality, the article ends about two-thirds of the way down the page.
What’s beneath the end of the content in the article? It could be a variety of things: social sharing tools, links to other content, ads or comments. Comments make the situation even more complicated because the number of comments from article to article varies. What’s more, the number of comments on individual articles isn’t static. Add to those issues the seemingly innumerable number of interface variables: content container width, sidebar width, image size, font size, typeface choice and so-on and any utility the scroll bar does provide is inconsistent at best. The result is that many times I don’t know whether an article will take me 5 minutes or 30 minutes to read.
You can probably scroll to estimate the length of an online post more quickly than you can flip several pages to see how long a magazine article is, but a cursory scan still doesn’t address the huge number of interface differences you’ll encounter.
There are some solutions, such as Medium’s time estimate. Here are examples of the time estimate employed in both a list of articles and an individual post.
Other publishing platforms provide indicators of quantity (like word count), but I’m not sure that most poeple know how long it will take them to read 300 words versus 1000 words. I don’t.
Physical print, on the other hand—a newspaper article, for example—can give you immediate feedback on length and time because you can look at the entire piece at the same time (or close if it’s a multi-page article). Even in a multi-page article, a quick scan allows you to consider the entire layout and all of its elements.
This issue is not the end of the world and most of us get along just fine reading articles online. I am surprised, though, that there arne’t more length-estimating and time-budgeting solutions for online content.
It’s worth noting that this is a cursory evaluation of reading digitally on a computer. My experience is almost identical on my phone, but I rarely consume long form text on my mobile device, so please do share if there are good solutions being implemented in the context of mobile.
One way to achieve consistent behavior from the sidebar as an indicator is to use a third-party tool (like Instapaper) that saves articles into a repository, strips all non-text-and-image components from the content and applies standard formatting to every article. Here’s an example:
1. Read about Florida Polytechnic University, a school that has no paper books in its library, on The Verge.