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Short attention spans, mobile phones and the future of reading

I bet you were expecting a doom filled post, rather similar to this excellent, long meditation on short formats and modern reading behaviours. But not a word of it; reading is, I think, in rude health.

In fact I’m willing to bet that people are reading — and writing — (whether it’s Twitter updates, Facebook pages, blogs or news stories) more than ever.

This is all conjecture, not science, of course.

The web doesn’t have the power to reduce attention spans

And how could it? Where’s the cause and effect? The same attention span argument has been made since 1928, and probably before that.

However, people do scan and skim texts when reading from a laptop/desktop monitor. The reasons for this aren’t down to shortened attention spans, per se. Rather, it’s:

  • Poor design: laptop and desktop monitors are too wide. 16 pixel text only needs a 5-650 pixel wide column to attain a comfortable measure. What to do with the extra 450 pixels? How to fill those exciting grids? There are lots and lots of widgets out there. Adverts too. All of them next to useless for the reader who simply wants to find out something.
  • Glare: anyone who works on a computer for a whole day knows how tired their eyes get. Try reading a long form article written like a Victorian novel after working in Excel for four hours to see what I mean. It’s next to impossible to read in a linear fashion, word by word.
  • Context: if visitors are shopping rather than reading they’re not, unsurprisingly, reading; they’re on a mission to gather prices and information. However, if they are reading, and you serve them legible text, they’ll, well, read it. Even God (who preaches the brief missive) tells us that long form texts are sometimes appropriate

My experience at work indicates that people are willing to engage with longer texts — they’ll certainly complain if they can’t find lots of information about what we do. Sometimes, they’ll complain because they can’t be bothered to search for the information (“have you looked on the website?” — “erm, uh, yeeaahhh!”), other times because it hasn’t been organised or presented well (as Nielsen states, you should still be using headings, bolded keywords, bullets and short paragraphs, even in long form texts). However, a lot of the time it’s because the detail simply isn’t there — detail that demands a longer text.

Mobile phones improve attention spans

You’re probably familiar with the image of a sullen teenager, disengaged from his parents (and fine literature, no doubt), staring into the eldritch light of his mobile phone. For many, this represents the end of Western civilisation, just as the TV did in the past.

However, I confidently predict that mobile devices will be good for attention spans because:

  • The design restraints will result in more readable texts; there’s nowhere to put endless widgets, adverts or even a sidebar. All the reader can focus on is the text.
  • It’s more comfortable reading from a mobile device than laptop or desktop monitor. You can recline, move the screen around, even take it with you from room to room.
  • They offer more opportunities and time for reading, which is why you see iPads and Kindles on the commuter train
  • Some devices (e.g. Kindle) resolve the glare problem

Of course, there’s no objective evidence in this (longish) article. All I can say is that I read more, and in more detail, than I did in the past, and I’ve spent a lot of time online over the last few years. And I’m also reading more of The Guardian than ever on my humble mobile device.