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Web Usability and Text Layout

Is it true that web pages are more readable if the text is confined to a column a few inches across, rather than stretching all the way across the browser window?

Does anyone know of any references that explicitly state this rule? I'm sure I've read it somewhere but I'm having a hard time finding it written down anywhere. Thanks.

Nearly Nielson
Monday, August 04, 2003

"The results of our experiment are quite interesting.  The analysis of the data shows that for wider screens readers prefer the text to be split into multiple columns.  However, the comprehension rate, which in our experiment is measured by the time to correct completion and the number of incorrect responses, does not significantly vary for multi- vs. single- column display."

http://www.otal.umd.edu/SHORE2000/multicol/introduction.html

Just me (Sir to you)
Monday, August 04, 2003

I think that decision should be left to the users of your website. If your text fills the whole width of the browser window, they can make it as wide or small as they like.

In fact, one of the things I don't like about Joel on Software is exactly the fact that the width of the text is static. That way I end up with a lot of wasted space when my browser window is quite wide, and I end up with scroll bars because the text is too wide when I'm using a small browser window.

Roel Schroeven
Monday, August 04, 2003

Of course it's been known for ages that text in general is more readable when lines are shorter, which is why magazines use multi-column layouts. The problem I've always had with multi-column layouts on the Web (e.g. in PDF-ed pages) is the vertical scrolling -- after scrolling to get to the bottom of the first column, you have to scroll up to get to the top of the second column, and so on. Hugely tedious.

John C.
Monday, August 04, 2003

What about a big screen (say 20") at a high rez (say 1600 x whatever) ?

Phil
Monday, August 04, 2003

"Of course it's been known for ages that text in general is more readable when lines are shorter ..."

But only if you use serif characters. With sans serif characters the reverse might be true, because lines become harder to track in narrow columns when you don't have a visible line.

Johnny Bravo
Monday, August 04, 2003

Actually, typographic parameters does rarely impact reading speed significantly. At least not for people who can read well, like say college students. The brain adapts to the new parameters within seconds as long as they are withing certain resonable limits. (*Eyemovments for the clinician, dont remember the author)

There are however psychological factors to take into account if you want someone to read your texts. Avoid making the text look too massive. Break it up and make it visually easy to know where you are in the text. If the text is to uniform youll have reread alot to find your place again. This bores people and they are likely to leave. It also causes alot of so.c. saccadic eyemovments wich can be tiresome in the long run, especially if the reader isnt very proficent.

If someone is really interested in what your text is about, it doesnt matter if its horrendously typographed. It wont slow them down.

Eric Debois
Monday, August 04, 2003

"Actually, typographic parameters does rarely impact reading speed significantly. At least not for people who can read well, like say college students."

Ah well, I was never aware of the possibility that I might be just too dumb to properly browse through, say, http://www.ultrashock.com/. Thankfully you cleared it up.

Moliere
Monday, August 04, 2003

All I know is that the sites I find easiest to read *nearly* all have one, fixed width column. Although I have a feeling it's more about lost of lovely white space rather than necessarily restricting the width of the text.

Yanwoo
Monday, August 04, 2003

>>I think that decision should be left to the users of your website. If your text fills the whole width of the browser window, they can make it as wide or small as they like.

I disagree. I don't want to be resizing my browser every 5 minutes because I'm looking at different sites. Increasingly, with faster connections and people getting used to browsing the web, average times per site are falling - so people would be forced to resize even more.

Sometimes, giving the user choice is not the right thing to do. Remember, 'don't make me think' is the way forward.

Yanwoo
Monday, August 04, 2003

It's fairly obvious to me that it's easier to read text in smaller columns than larger ones. The eye has to travel less, and when it gets to the right side it doesn't lose track of the left side, so it does less searching when it hits a carriage return.

I know this from simply being observant of how I feel when reading larger colums of text. The smaller the column, the better, within reason.

My monitor is huge... 19" and my resolution is too, like 1278 x something. It's like two magazine pages next to each other. I'd hate to read something across the whole screen.

www.marktaw.com
Monday, August 04, 2003

> I don't want to be resizing my browser every 5 minutes because I'm looking at different sites.

Me neither of course, and in the end it turns out I don't resize it very often. For example, at the moment my browser window is about 900 pixels wide, about two third of the screen width. I set it at that size because it leaves some screen real estate for keeping an eye on other windows. I find that setup very adequate for viewing sites that don't use a static text width; I never have a problem with columns that are too wide. Most sites have a three-column setup anyway, mostly with site navigation etc. in the left and right columns. That leaves a nice width for the text itself. And _if_ for some reason I want to view more text at the time, I can widen the browser and the text will accomodate. Or if I want to save on the screen real estate, I can narrow the browser window without creating horizontal scrollbars.

Sites with fixed text width don't give me all of that flexibility. Either the text column is too narrow so quite a lot of screen real estate is wasted, or the column is too wide and I have to scroll left and right. Both problems can be overcome by resizing the browser window, but that's something I don't like being forced on me. Resizing to accomodate for screen real estate in relation to other windows on my desktop (or even the desktop itself, if there's a nice wallpaper :)  ), but not if it's only because a website doesn't adapt itself to my browsing habits.

(OT: the wallpaper thing reminds me of in inconsistency in the desktop model: in real live, who would put wallpaper on his desktop??)

Roel Schroeven
Monday, August 04, 2003

In response to marktaw's big monitor, and his saying he'd hate reading something across that whole screen; out of curiosity, do most people here have the habit of maxizing their browser, or other windows for that matter?

I used to do that too, up until the time that I used 1024x786 displays. Once the resolutions got better, I almost never have any window occupy the whole desktop. In most cases any specific window is big enough without maximizing it, and that way I can keep several windows into view. Which I find tremendously practical, for having some documentation nearby, or for keeping an eye on the progress of a compilation or a Winamp/XMMS playlist, or whatever.

Roel Schroeven
Monday, August 04, 2003

Nobody here noticed the way their eye travelled as they were reading the posts & as they were posting a response? How much more physically demanding reading text across a width more than a few inches can be? How many times your eye moves as it's reading, and how frequently/infrequently you get lost? It's all very subtle, and I maybe like quantum physics impossible to analyze properly, but my gut tells me this is true.

Skinnier text = less eye travel = less effort. Also, the small area you can focus on keeps all of the text in view, rather than the edges of the text constantly being shifted out to your peripheral vision.

I keep my browser at 800 x 600. It's fun to see all the sites that don't work quite right at this resolution.

www.marktaw.com
Monday, August 04, 2003

Actually I never noticed any problem with text that fills the whole width of the browser, unless it's in very small print (which is a usability problem of its own), but that's solved easily in modern browsers by enlarging the text size.

I find myself skipping text with no paragraph breaks, or with very long paragraphs, but text column width has nothing to do with that.

OTOH, I also have a problem with text columns that are too narrow: because of the short line length, only very little text fits on the screen at a time. Constant scrolling is needed to read the text or get an overview of what's on the page.

Roel Schroeven
Monday, August 04, 2003

Good points.

I think the dense paragraphs are also harder to navigate... Lines with spaces help break up the text & make it easier for your eye to find the line you're on.

www.marktaw.com
Monday, August 04, 2003

Also the point about using a static text width because traveling less distance is easier on the eyes, isn't exactly a valid point since the actual size of that static width is different depending on the monitor and resolution.

However, I think I would agree that most of the time I wouldn't want text that stretched all the way across my browser window.  As someone else mentioned, most of the sites I visit have a table layout with navigation to the side, etc, so that the text isn't actually that wide, but is still variable.

Leaving blank space in the browser is not nearly as bad as having to scroll horizontally, so I'd say that if you choose static sizing it is important to target smaller monitors (say 800x600)

Whoever made the point about maximizing: I agree.  I stopped maximizing most windows after 1024x768.  Even at that resolution I don't always maximize

Mike McNertney
Monday, August 04, 2003

"my browser window is about 900 pixels wide, about two third of the screen width. I set it at that size because it leaves some screen real estate for keeping an eye on other windows"

Just in case they start to misbehave?


Tuesday, August 05, 2003

"Do most people here have the habit of maxizing their browser, or other windows for that matter?"

Almost all my windows are maximized, EXCEPT for my browser. For most of them, I need all the real-estate (like the IDE, with all its docked windows) even on this 1400x1050 display (it's better with multiple monitors, like my desktop machine).

I will occasionally max my browser window, but that's generally because a specific site is laid out poorly and requires it. 99% of the time, it's in its default size (which somewhere between the size of a maxed 800x600 browser and a maxed 1024x768 browser). I never resize, only maximize, since that's not a "permanent" change.

Brad Wilson (dotnetguy.techieswithcats.com)
Tuesday, August 05, 2003

If you're using a browser with tabs, you don't want to be resizing windows.

Mark is simply wrong about eye-movements. Your eye doesn't move smoothly; it jumps through blocks of three or four words a time. It doesn't really matter how the text is set out in this respect.

The much bigger probem is with fixed size text. If you're using IE you're hosed as it doesn't resize the text properly.

Stephen Jones
Saturday, August 16, 2003

What I find annoying/frustrating about this whole conversation is that it's all just various people's personal opinions, and we have no idea whether those opinions are representative of anything broader. 

I recently attended a web-design seminar by ACM/SIGCHI where a speaker said that "we're making up half of this as we go along and we're not sure which half!".

Web design has been around long enough by now that it's high time we graduated from offhand opinion and based our design decisions on objective research.  I realize that no design is right for everyone but I want to be confident I'm making the design that will only lose 30% of my visitors and not 60%.

Peter Nelson
Wednesday, April 14, 2004

"If you're using IE you're hosed as it doesn't resize the text properly."

I'm not sure who he means by "you're".  As web designers we have no control over what browser visitors use and it's a pretty safe bet that IE will be the most common one.  So we're obligated to produce designs that aren't "hosed" even when the visitor is using IE. 

If IE doesn't resize properly we need to produce designs that aren't dependent on proper text resizing, for example by enforcing the font size, width, spacing, etc, in the HTML or style sheet, rather than relying on "default" settings that can be changed by the browser. 

Peter Nelson
Wednesday, April 14, 2004

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