Which Do You Prefer? Curl up with a Book or Computer Reading Device?

Have you ever considered how different the experience of online reading is compared to scanning words printed on a dead tree? To me, the experiences are worlds apart.

My life as an avid reader began with cereal boxes in the 1960’s. In those days, there was typically a small toy inside the box. The back of the box might have a game, or something to cut out or tell a story. Once I got a 45 RPM record from a cereal box. I think it was a song by The Partridge Family. I learned early on that reading while eating Captain Crunch led to some kind of reward.

I fell in love with school libraries in elementary school because I loved the escape of a good detective book. The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and others entertained me for hours with their daring adventures. The reward was a successful mission, the good guys won and girls were as smart as the boys.

Today, I’m a bookstore fanatic. I can spend hours gazing at books. I love to hold them, page through them, read about the authors, look for bargain prices, and settle into a chair to read. I have a writer friend who interviews famous people, many of whom are authors. She lets me borrow the free book copies she gets. Many are autographed for her. She and I both are attached to our book cases and view them with pride.

Reading online is something I find difficult to do. For such a devoted reader, I think it’s surprising that no web based article or magazine holds the same magic for me as the printed word. Sometimes I’ll even print out a white paper, article or case study because I want to curl up on the couch to read it. I want to scribble notes on it. I like to use highlighters and write reminders for things that may come in handy later. I can’t take a highlighter to a web page. I can’t jot down notes on the screen.

I loved the article In Defense of Readers by Mandy Brown. I could relate to the solitude I find while reading, even in a crowded bookstore. Mandy wrote:

“Despite the ubiquity of reading on the web, readers remain a neglected audience. Much of our talk about web design revolves around a sense of movement: users are thought to be finding, searching, skimming, and looking. We measure how frequently they click but not how long they stay on the page. We concern ourselves with their travel and participation—how they move from page to page, who they talk to when they get there—but forget the needs of those whose purpose is to be still. Readers flourish when they have space—some distance from the hubbub of the crowds—and as web designers, there is yet much we can do to help them carve out that space.”

Interestingly, as web designers and marketers, we create content in the hopes that readers will do something. We want them to read and click to go somewhere. We hope they read and make a purchase. In other words, we design click paths and tasks to direct action or persuade some kind of interaction. We have expectations of our readers. We don’t think in terms of rewards. We don’t even visualize their reading experience. (We hope nobody is reading our stuff while driving, however.)

Jakob Nielsen wrote, in Write for Reuse,

“We know from countless studies of users’ reading behavior on websites that people mainly read only the initial part of any piece of content. To read beyond that, users must be convinced of the content’s value.”

He even says that reading a full page on the web is “rare”. Indeed, web designers already know they have to design for scanning.

According to research by Gartner, 80% of Internet users or what they called “Generation Virtual” are lurkers. They are “…essentially spectators, who reap the rewards of online community input but absorb only what is being communicated. They can still implicitly contribute and indirectly validate value from the rest of the community. All users start out as lurkers.”

With the enormous volume of information on the Internet, our reading habits are quite fascinating. We can listen to web based content via audio and podcasts. We can fire up our cell phones and read articles, blogs and forum threads on tiny screens. Our laptops come to bed with us, ready to offer a story if we sign up for something like Zinio.

Are we really enjoying the user experience of reading online? Is it rewarding? I miss the days of fiddling with cereal boxes, trying to force the toy to fall out. I’d cut out box tops and send away for prizes. I love my library card. I love those big giant bargain coffee table books on Greece, astrology and ancient Egypt that you can buy for $5.00. I turn my cell phone off in the book store because I don’t want anyone to know I’m from the world of machines.

The act of opening a book, reading the inside cover, scanning the table of contents, looking at the author’s picture, feeling the smooth book jacket, and feeling the weight of the book are a cherished user experience.

I’m not ready to let go of it, yet.

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This article was originally written by Kim Berg and published by Search Engine Land, March 27, 2009