In The Armchair

On-Screen Reading with Comprehension

Posted in Computers by Armchair Guy on June 6, 2010

Reading on paper is something most of us grew up with.  It’s possible coming generations will have more memories of growing up reading on a computer screen.  Perhaps static text and non-interactive content will feel archaic to many of them.  But for the generation that grew up holding real paper in their hands, reading a real book or a printout is much easier than reading on a computer screen.

I come to that conclusion because most people I’ve spoken to express in some way that they’re more comfortable with paper than with the screen.  Some feel they cannot read technical articles with full comprehension, or perhaps with equal comprehension, on a computer screen. Some say that fiction just isn’t as much fun on a computer screen. (I don’t know anyone who owns an e-reader; so I may be using a poor comparison on fiction.)

What could the reasons be?

Several people comment on the feeling of holding a book, and how that just feels satisfying.  Others simply say it has to do with comprehension.  I have a few theories:

  1. How you got your start might have something to do with what you enjoy the most.  If you are accustomed to physical paper, that might affect your enjoyment.
  2. I think it’s possible that vertical text is harder to read with comprehension than horizontal text; most screens are vertical.
  3. For technical reading, the ability to flip back and forth for quick comparison, quickly search by flipping through several pages, rapidly access specific parts of a book (beginning, middle, end, about 10 pages back, etc.) all contribute to making it easier.  I would’ve thought these functions are not too hard to implement ergonomically on reading program, but there’s a whole lot of things you can do.  It might be hard to make them all available through a GUI.
  4. To some extent, memory is assisted by connecting content with position.  For example, I often remember whether a formula in a book is on the left or right side, whether it’s closer to the beginning or the end.  It’s said that this is a bad habit and does the memory no good (hey — my memory really isn’t that good!).  In any case, that feeling of knowing where you are “on a map” — the physical location on the book — is completely lost when reading on a screen.  It’s possible to know by looking at the scrollbar, but that doesn’t give me the same sense of knowing where I am.

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