Digital Readers Deserve Better

Reclaiming attention through content and design

Photo by Ismael Paramo on Unsplash

Scan the 21st-century landscape, and bear witness to the death of deep reading and attention.

The horizon is littered with the bones of things we once held dear: Difficult novels. Philosophical treatises. Maps in the glove compartment. Remembering our friends’ phone numbers. Making a small calculation in our minds. Sitting still and not craving distraction.

The internet and smartphones have given us many things, but we have lost a great deal as well.

Until now, formational, deep reading has (1) occurred exclusively in print, ever since we started scrawling on scrolls, and has been (2) distinguished by text that is designed for attention and retention.

Avid readers in our digital age perhaps feel this loss of “deep reading” in more acute ways than others. Maryanne Wolf, a professor of neuroscience who studies how children learn to read, shared an example in her recent book, Reader, Come Home: The Fate of the Reading Brain in the Digital World. She once loved Herman Hesse’s rich, complex novels, but she found, with sudden dismay, that she could no longer read Hesse. It was too difficult. Too dense. She was too easily distracted. After much effort, she was finally able to get through The Glass Bead Game, but she had to read it twice, arduously, and keep her phone in another room.

As an avid reader, I shivered with recognition when I encountered this example. I read about 100 books a year, and I’ve been reading books hungrily since I was a small child. Naming myself as a “reader” is a core part of my identity. And yet, I have noticed a grievous decline in my capacity to read deeply over the past seven or eight years.

I can track my deterioration as a reader precisely in time. The year after I graduated from college, I graduated from a flip-phone to a smartphone.

As technology improved, I spent more and more time on my phone and laptop and less and less time with books. Apps were entertaining; the internet was full of wonderful information; social media was an endless, beguiling pit. My interest in difficult books began to wane. I realized I could not lose myself in the printed word in a way that I once had, and it scared me.

It still scares me. I mourn the loss of my younger reading self, who could lose hours in books and never look for a diversion, never hunger for a screen. I’m not sure I’ll ever meet her again. Although I still read many books, I’m not convinced that I understand them with as much depth as I once did. I find myself having to re-read passages. I lose the thread. I am easily distracted by my environment. It now takes considerable effort for me to focus on a book. I, like Professor Wolf, have to keep my phone in another room. I have to banish all distractions.

It is not the same. My reading brain has been permanently altered by a few decades in front of screens.

Constantly changing (our minds)

But permit me to pause this lament. Even as I and many others mourn this decline in deep reading, I’m compelled to remember that the human brain is nothing if not malleable.

Reading, after all, is not an evolutionary skill that we’re born with (like talking or walking). As Maryanne Wolf notes in her 2007 book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, once we developed written language, the human brain changed rapidly and significantly. With shocking speed and efficiency, our brains began to form new pathways to recognize letterforms and then attach them to the relevant parts of our cortex.

The internet has dramatically changed the way we read. But so did the invention of papyrus in 3000 B.C. And so did Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440. And so did the frenzy of periodical publishing during the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution.

Even as we ponder the dark consequences of our screen-addicted society, we must admit that our reading brains are likely to keep changing still.

As designers, content strategists, information architects, and developers—in short, as the people who make digital interfaces—we have the opportunity to turn the tide. We, perhaps more than other groups, have the ability and capacity to affect the reading brain in a powerful way as we lurch further into the 21st century.

Why should we care? Because reading is still the best method we have to change our minds, to transmit and receive ideas on a broad scale. Reading is still one of the primary ways we form culture. When we read, especially deeply, we shape our hearts and mold our characters. For humanity, reading well still counts for something.

If we accept this as true, how, then, should we think about reading deeply on screens?

Text that informs and text that forms

Most text on screens is informational. It’s intended to get us from one point to the next: choose that menu item, sign up for the newsletter, put those organic wool dryer balls in your cart. For this reason, we’re not really reading on screens; we’re skimming. We take in the bare minimum of text (20% of a page, on average) to get us where we want to go.

Conventional reading, however, has been formational. Reading well implies quiet, focused attention on the text, absorbing the intent and meaning of each sentence and in the context of the larger whole. We receive information from this traditional method of reading, of course. But on a deeper level, we are more likely to be formed by text that we read well. It gets into our bones. It refashions our character. It changes our worldview.

Knowing this, I’d like to wager that there is still a time and place for formational reading—real, true, deep reading—on screens.

“To pay attention: This is our endless and proper work.”
— Mary Oliver, “Yes! No!”

Designing for attention and retention

If we care about reclaiming attention and retention online, we have to acknowledge that we will face some seemingly Sisyphean hurdles.

Screens and scrolling do have a disruptive and negative effect on comprehension (something we’ve known since we started studying this distinction in 1992). Students think their comprehension is better online than in print, but they’re dead wrong. Comprehension is significantly improved when people read printed texts instead of digital ones.

On screens, we’re crushed by constant interruptions, seduced by this persistent myth that we’re good at multitasking. (We’re not. No one is.) We think we’re focused as we scroll through text loaded with ads, hyperlinks, and GIFs, but we’re instead constantly shifting our attention, focusing on nothing and retaining nothing.

We come to screens distracted — and actively looking for more distractions. This is at the fundamental core of how the internet was made. Hyperlinks are meant to spirit us away, to provide an alternate route, to get us to stop what we’re doing and go elsewhere.

But we continue to scan and skim incredible quantities of text all day long on our dearly beloved devices. We still love “reading.” As a 2006 Pew study found, people continue to have high levels of engagement with long-form content (over 1,000 words) online. Readers on mobile devices especially enjoy long content (likely because we love scrolling). Our screen-addled brains are still enchanted by text.

We have a tremendous opportunity, therefore, to resist the trends of distraction and “continuous partial attention” when we design and display text on screens.

To reclaim the space of deep reading for screens, we must design for purposeful attention and meaningful retention. Attention refers to our capacity to both focus on text and to glean meaning from it. Without attention, we’re not truly reading; we’re just taking in shapes and making lightning-fast, lizard-brain decisions based on letterforms. Furthermore, reading can only move from being informational to formational when we read for retention. When we are able to remember and then recall what we have read, the text is given the power to shape us. Our opinions can be altered. Our characters can be transformed. Print has done this well for thousands of years. It’s high time for screens to start serving readers in the same way.

“Done badly (which is to say, done cynically), the Internet reduces us to mindless clickers, racing numbly to the bottom of a bottomless feed; but done well, it has the potential to expand and augment the very contemplative space that we have prized in ourselves ever since we learned to read without moving our lips.”
— Paul La Farge, Nautilus (20 April 2017)

Mimic what works in print

To serve digital readers well, long-form content online should replicate what already works for reading in print.

1. Care about typesetting.

Reading in print is pleasant when book designers follow the tried-and-true dictums of typography. Over the centuries, designers have developed a visual rhythm for the proper font sizes, spacing between lines, and margin widths that make reading both possible and pleasurable.

I’m, of course, not the first to say this, but digital designers and content strategists must follow the principles of typography online—especially if we care about serving readers. By setting, arranging, and calibrating type, we can create digital interfaces that make deep reading online possible.

Caring about typesetting communicates that you care about your readers. When I encounter an article that’s set in a 10-point typeface with no margins (looking at you, London Review of Books and Newsweek), I think, “Huh. This publisher doesn’t care if I read this or not.” But when I pull up a piece from the New Yorker, with spacious margins and a comfortably sized serif, I feel invited to settle in and actually read the text.

2. Resist the urge to offer up more distractions.

When I first started drafting this post, I littered it with hyperlinks to my sources and plentiful boldface formatting to make sentences stand out. I added some visual links to related Medium posts from my colleagues. But my smart boss pointed out that I was doing exactly what I wanted designers to avoid: I was tempting readers with an array of distractions. I was doing what the internet was created to do, but I was not honoring the time and attention of prospective readers. I was making it harder for you to do the very thing I wanted: read.

As designers and content strategists faced with long-form text, we need to come to terms with the fact that deep reading online shouldn’t be sexy. Perhaps it should just be a black-and-white page of carefully typeset text.

(Medium itself deserves credit for creating a platform that prizes reading. You can add a lot of fun stuff to your post, as I tried to, but you can also create a plain-Jane long-form article that is straightforward and easy to read.)

It’s for this reason that I love Pocket, the app that saves and then strips any webpage of formatting and presents it in a distraction-free, typeset window. I feel like I can actually read a great deal of long content online because of Pocket. Until more designers and digital publishers wise up, we’ll have to continue to rely on hacks like this to read well on the majority of our devices.

3. Expect reading on screens to be difficult.

I want to underline this point (but I’m resisting the temptation).

We mistakenly think digital reading is easier than reading in print. This is why we overestimate our capacity for reading on screens and why our comprehension tanks as a result. We expect reading in print to require effort and focus, and so we give it effort and focus. We underestimate the profoundly distracting nature of screens and scrolling, and we overestimate the power of our minds to resist temptation. We are not as smart or strong as we think we are.

Instead, we must recalibrate our expectations for deep reading on screens. We must begin to acknowledge that reading on screens is harder than reading in print. We need to bring twice the mental effort to a long-form digital article than we do to a printed essay.

As readers and designers, we can forge a better, brighter path to deep reading in the future. Perhaps we have prematurely mourned the death of deep reading. Perhaps it is still in our power to save it.

Further reading

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