Less Text, Please: Contemporary Reading Behaviors and Short Formats

Yesterday I had a meeting with some managers about a series of quick reference guides that I had been preparing. If you remember, much of my callout post referred to a strategy about callout design. It was the same project. (The team actually went with bubble callouts rather than my minimalist callouts, but that’s another story.)

During the meeting, as the team looked at the callouts on the quick reference guides, they felt there was too much text. Reduce the text, increase the font, they said.

Reduce the text? Make it even shorter? The content was already a two-page quick reference guide. Were we now to make it a postcard?

I get this feedback a lot. Hand any help material to a non-writer in a meeting, and the request I routinely hear is to make it shorter. Too much text. People aren’t going to read this, they say, as if they were expecting to take in the entire content with a five-second glance.

My experiences lead me to wonder about the possible transformation of reading experiences, and if reading is still the same in our online age. When you add in the immediacy of online content, hyperlinks, mobile formats, RSS feeds, and endless information, do people still read in the same way? And if people read differently today than they did 50 years ago, how do we change our help deliverables to fit contemporary reading patterns?

Attention Spans

Probably the most radical argument about shifted reading behaviors comes from Nicholas Carr, who asserts that Google has rewired his brain, reduced his attention span, and given him more superficial reading habits, including some fidgeting. In short, Carr thinks that Internet content has made him “stupid.” In an article in The Atlantic, Carr explains,

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, and begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle. (Is Google Making Us Stupid?)

In other words, rather than sitting down with a book and immersing himself in it, drowning out the world around him as he drinks in page after page, he now gets restless after a few pages. His attention span compels him to turn somewhere else, to read from a different author or source. His reading experience is much more cursory and shallow, thanks to the Internet.

Steven Johnson also argues a similar point in the Wall Street Journal. He has the epiphany while sitting alone in a restaurant in Texas. He argues that the deep, immersive reading experience evaporates with the ability to immediately view or download any content, almost anywhere. Johnson writes,

Because [print books] have been largely walled off from the world of hypertext, print books have remained a kind of game preserve for the endangered species of linear, deep-focus reading. Online, you can click happily from blog post to email thread to online New Yorker article — sampling, commenting and forwarding as you go. But when you sit down with an old-fashioned book in your hand, the medium works naturally against such distractions; it compels you to follow the thread, to stay engaged with a single narrative or argument. (How the e-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write.)

In other words, the shift from print books to online content, in which every page is linked to another page, in a giant web of connected content, has given readers a lack of patience. They can’t remain on one narrative thread for long periods of time. They instead jump around. They sample and move on, they glance and click. No one sits down to eat a long literary dinner any more.


One main enabler of the short, cursory attention span is the hyperlink. At the last STC Summit, Ginny Redish and Kathyrn Summers noted how the hyperlink becomes an obstacle for low-literacy users, causing them to click links randomly and lose their train of thought. Each hyperlink presents a forking path for the reader, presenting the reader with the decision to click elsewhere. If a reader is slightly bored, the temptation to move on to greener web pastures is often too much, regardless of the literacy level.

Smart Phones

Smart phones also contribute to the shift in reading behaviors. The smaller display and screen real estate on a smart phone, as well as the smaller font of the text, strain reading. But the portability of the smart phone compensates for the strain in an overpowering way, so that the reverse is also true: people read more, at least according to Peter Collingridge, a publisher of Enhanced Editions software for the iPhone.

Collingridge says that “People aren’t reading less on mobile devices, they’re reading more.” This is because “occasional reading suddenly became so much easier: on the bus, waiting for the tube, opening an app that remembers the exact place you left it for a quick literary fix becomes second nature very quickly.”

Collingridge finds that to deal with his insomnia, he’ll read his “iPhone in bed at all hours, without the need for a light” (Reading Wolf Hall on the iPhone).

Collinridge specializes in digital editions for e-books, so perhaps readers are able to enter the deep-focused reading state that Johnson describes, even on mobile. However, on my smart phone, a Palm Pre, I tend to only read RSS feeds. I can move through dozens of feed items relatively quickly, choosing to save good reads through my Read It Later app, which saves posts to Instapaper.

Reading an article longer than 3,000 words gets tiring, and I quickly feel like I’m making my way through Moby Dick. It’s a bit harder to jump and skim on the mobile device, because I can only see a two-inch span of the article. Still, I may read more content because I can curl up in my favorite position on the couch or bed and read from a device in my hand. I may lie there reading for an hour or more, but moving from feed to feed, from site to site, often in the dark.

This behavior no doubt turns habitual. Soon my reading pattern is to jump and click, moving from site to site, regardless of whether I’m at a desktop, a laptop, or holding a book or magazine. The smart phone inculcates a new reading pattern in me that favors short text.

As the following image shows, the shift in media from books to television, and then to video games, Internet, social media, and smart phones, has slowly rewired our brains. We have shorter attention spans. We prefer short texts.

Rewiring the brain

Rewiring the brain through shifts in technology

Given this rewiring, perhaps we technical writers should start producing help materials optimized for this type of brain? I’ll come back to this idea in a minute. First, a few more arguments about how reading is transformed.

The Blog

In contrast to book authors, the army of daily bloggers cranks out a million short posts a day. One rarely finds a 5,000 word essay to slog through on a blog. And if you do find one, given the average literary skill online, it might not be worth reading carefully. In fact, most blog posts are re-spun cliches or ideas that we’ve already read or already understand, so skimming this content only makes sense.

Regardless of the content quality, if blogs are the new format for online content, and most are short articles (under 2,000 words), doesn’t this new standard for brevity reduce the reader’s ability to endure long, book-length texts? The more you read blog posts, the more you expect content to be short. We’re surrounded by a culture of content in which short formats are the norm.

Even critics who defend the intellectual depth of these short formats still acknowledge their brevity. Clive Thompson in Wired says, “The torrent of short-form thinking is actually a catalyst for more long-form meditation” (“The Short and the Long of It,” January 2011). His assertion is brilliantly illustrated through this simple concept diagram.

Clive Thompson

“The torrent of short-form thinking is actually a catalyst for more long-form meditation.” — Clive Thompson

Whether all of these short-form texts aggregate into long-form trends and deeper, more extensive analysis overall is beside my point. I cite Clive here as yet another critic who acknowledges the shift in formats from “long, well-thought-out arguments” to “text messages, tweets, and status updates.” These short formats may be micro-components of a collectively intelligent macro discussion. But the mere fact that discussions take place in short formats rather than long ones reinforces the trend I’m highlighting: short texts surround us as the norm.

Tags and Categories

In addition to favoring short forms of content, blogs are also structured with tags and category links, which invite readers to explore content thematically rather than as a whole.  Interested in the topic of web design? Click this web design category link and peruse the available articles. Or click the usability tag and see even more specific selections on the topic. Thematic reading often spans numerous articles rather than pointing readers to a single lengthy work. You end up reading an online bibliography or collection rather than a single book.

At my work, we just released a notebook tool that allows users to highlight passages and bookmark articles as they read site content. They can add the content to a folder and tag it. The result is a chopped up bag of short content that provides a litany of quotations, highlights, and article titles on a topic. All short and concise. A reader can move through dozens of sources, sampling each article in very little time. Eventually you’ll be able to share your collections with other readers, so readers will no longer be turning to lengthy primary source material for learning. Instead, they’ll move through a smattering of individual paragraphs from dozens of sources, all compiled together in a list showing 10 items per page.

So Much Content

Never mind the type or format of content, another cause behind the changed reading behavior is the abundance of content. With a thousand new posts in Google Reader all the time, access to every online newspaper in the world, new podcasts to listen to, email to check, updates to Twitter and Facebook arriving every three minutes in little corners of the screen — it’s no wonder people have short attention spans. There’s simply no way to get through the sea of information navigating a sailboat. You need a speedboat to manage the choppy waters, with a strategy to skip and skim as fast as possible.


Despite the abundance of short text, I still lament the trend. The less I write, the happier my project teams are. If I could deliver everything in a handful of haikus, I would be the most popular writer in town.

Text in this long guide

Reduced to a few callouts

Users jump with joy

The shorter documentation is, the more likely people will read it. But at some point, brevity doesn’t translate into simplicity. It translates into obscurity. Knowing the exact point that happens – when text I’ve shortened lacks clarity and only becomes confusing – isn’t always apparent. It depends on the context the reader brings.

The same people who clipped back my copious callouts into a few marketing bubbles would have also pruned this post from 2,000 words to 200. Would that make the text more valuable? Just as there’s a balance between simplicity and obscurity, there’s a balance between length and learning. More people might read a short text, but a longer text yields more learning. Is there no pleasure in learning anymore?

At any rate, as technical writers, the era of brevity invites us to emphasize short forms of instruction. As such, I present to you, patient reader, a list of the top 10 short text deliverables, optimized for the online reader:

  • Quick reference guides
  • Screencasts (1-2 minute)
  • Visual callout guides
  • Role-based guides
  • Interactive rollover screen tutorials
  • Instructive blog articles
  • Online quick reference sites (example)
  • Laminated job aids
  • Cafeteria table tents
  • Standalone diagrams and illustrations

These formats may not be ideal in all situations, but the trend is clear: shorter guides, more visuals, and less text, please.

Adobe RobohelpMadcap Flare

By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

38 thoughts on “Less Text, Please: Contemporary Reading Behaviors and Short Formats

  1. Leon

    Thanks for this post, I really enjoyed it (and only skimmed a part of it :-) ).

    I disagree with a lot of what you say, though. Just my personal experience, but my reading behaviour varies according to the format. For instance, I do generally skim articles when reading from a laptop or desktop monitor because it’s uncomfortable reading from these screens; partly because standard website design is not conducive to reading longform texts (small fonts, ads, sidebars, lots of distraction etc.), partly due to glare. Better design can help reading.

    I do often print longer articles as it’s obviously easier to read them from a page (print stylesheets are a necessity).

    However, I do find myself reading a lot more (and more closely) from my mobile phone, ironically because the device only allows designers to put the article on the screen. The reading position is more comfortable as well.

    As I get older I’m reading more (print) novels and, I like to think, more closely than I did as a teenager. Just my opinion, of course — no–one’s tested me :-), but I don’t think my novel reading has been adversely affected by digital media.

    Finally, I write for a website and preach brevity all the time. I have the opposite problem in that people used to think the writing isn’t doing enough persuading. I have been guilty of being too brief on occasion.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Leon, thanks for your comment. I checked out your post as well. I agree that the format of a text inclines us toward a certain reading behavior. Interesting that you link to Jakob Nielsen. That’s an interesting idea. A while back I wrote a post on content curation versus content creation. The Neilsen article aligns with my preference for content creation.

      Your focus seems to be with web text. My perspective is more with tech comm, so I’m curious what reading mode you would adopt with help material (such as for a software program). Would you still agree that long text is fine as long as it’s insightful and engaging? Or is that impossible for dry, procedural help material?

      I do think you’re right that length becomes less of an issue if the content is exciting. However, some people commented on the length of my blog post, which was about 2,200 words. In comparison to the length of a regular essay or book, 2,200 words is almost nothing. I think our standards about what qualifies as “long” have changed.

      I may expand more on that Nielsen article in the context of help. Is it better for short or long when it comes to a guide? Do you need both? And why is the web so different (or is it)?

      1. Leon

        We tend to curate on my work site, but that’s largely because it’s difficult getting people within the organisation to contribute content. I don’t expect fully formed 1,500 word blog posts, but even ideas for articles are short. This is because we have a disparate workforce and content creation is only in my job description, no–one else’s. Luckily I work in an area where it’s relatively easy getting external ‘experts’ to contribute, and I can construct articles based on discussions held on our LinkedIn group’s discussion board. But still, I’d prefer to create longer, in depth articles, and I’m convinced they’d be popular.

        As for help guides, I only have experience of writing support materials for a complex online product/service we tested on a couple of users. My experience is that users would rather email or phone whenever they had a question :-)

        My approach was to set up a small wiki (using Google Sites, incidentally) that offered a simple top level menu that allowed users to drill down into longer, more detailed answers (the longest single text was about 1,000 words). Not sure that’s really relevant to what you were doing, but I guess it means that I do see a place for relatively long help materials, for some products at least. I didn’t get enough feedback on the help materials to say whether they were successful or not.

        The ability to add search, hyperlinks and user content obviously makes for a different type of help text…

        I’ve got used to writing 500 word blog posts (contradicting Nielsen, but my blog isn’t doing the same thing as his); 2,000 words seems a novel. I think you’re right; our (or my) perception of what is long has become skewed online.

        1. Tom Johnson

          Leon, to give more fuel to your desire to write longer posts, in the Clive Thompson article I cited in this post, Clive also says, “One survey found that the most popular blog posts today are the longest ones, 1,600 words on average” (p. 40, Wired, Jan 2011). Sorry I don’t have a link to that. I probably should have included this fact, because 1,600 words seems long, but I think it’s still short when you compare it to a traditional essay or book.

          Re your help strategy of allowing users to drill down into deeper information, it sounds like a good strategy. I like wikis because they allow me to keep the content in perpetual beta, as they say, adding and modifying content as needed. Thanks for participating in this conversation.

  2. Steve

    You know I kinda agree with your colleagues. It’s all about context. Tech docs (you see how I saved a few characters there) are an emergency measure. Nobody wants them, most of us would be happier if they weren’t needed. We want your writing to be transparent and terse. Writing is rewriting. And the rewriting is often taking stuff out. You can say an awful lot in 140 characters.

    Just short enough, and no shorter.

    Nice article though, and well written :)

    1. Tom Johnson

      Interesting point. So tech docs are like tax instructions — one prefers them to be short and concise because we hate reading them? I wonder if help has to be that way. Is the content of help destined to be part of an information set that 99 percent of people will always hate to read, thereby making any argument about length null because longer always equals worse for this category of information?

  3. Tim

    Hi. Enjoyed this thoughtful post, but disagree with your conclusions.
    Far from being helpless victims of technology-driven dumbing-down, we are actively reading and paying attention in all sorts of new and productive ways.
    So, some people get distracted by the volume of newness going on in their content, but some people have always been distracted easily. The idea that we are all being distracted by new, more and less valuable content is a line that’s been going on for millennia.
    If anything, the opposite is true: we have long gained from the advantages generated by new technology, and the devices we have today are enabling us to read in a more diverse and enriched way. To take your mind diagrams; the new lines should simply be added to those in 1900. And we’re not being re-wired; we’re using existing hardware in new ways. It’s a software upgrade, not a hardware change.
    Some people aren’t that interested in words, true, but that’s always been the case. With digital media, we shouldn’t conflate ruthless navigation through irrelevant information with a lack of desire to read. People are reading in all sorts of ways, from short to long; but we’ve never wanted to read irrelevant text.
    Some more thoughts here:

    1. Tom Johnson

      Tim, thanks for your insights here. Also, thanks for pointing me to the article you wrote on this same topic (attention spans and digital media). You have an extremely relevant and refreshing in perspective. You take a much more optimistic point of view toward new media. Instead of seeing new technology as a monster that’s rewriting our brains, you see opportunity and more diversity of reading experiences.

      Is there any way you could bring these comments to the scenario of help material? In what ways should help authors harness new forms of digital media to communicate their message? Do you think help material is stuck in the past with its manual formats, online help, and lengthy text?

      I would like to see your analysis of how to use these new formats (blogs? twitter? youtube?) to enrich and rejuvenate help content so that it doesn’t feel like irrelevant information that readers have to ruthlessly navigate.

      1. Tim

        Thanks for your kind comments, Tom. Much appreciated.
        I try to be a rational optimist! When I look at history, and at the material truth of what’s going on around me, I see far more cause for celebration than misery. Not to say that we don’t face problems and difficulties in the world, of course, but I believe humankind’s capacity to develop, invent and share extraordinary new and better ways to do things is the most under-rated aspect of modern life.
        I’m not an expert on help communications, but I would be surprised if anything about this specific area challenged the fundamentals of good communication. In other words, our use of words should be informed by the mantra ‘as little as possible, as much as necessary’. For example, if we’re trying to help people solve a specific and pressing issue we should help them gain the knowledge they need to act as quickly as possible. If we want to talk about complex ideas or convey a range of finely nuanced feelings or thoughts, we should use the full array of expression words can provide.
        Graphics can be hugely helpful. But let’s kill off this hackneyed idea that an image is worth a thousand words; there are countless times when you need the precision of words to enable someone to understand what is required. Imagine if the next brief you receive from a client was written entirely in graphic symbols or photographs. I’ve written on this here: http://www.66000milesperhour.com/2010/05/on-pictures-and-prose/
        Brevity can be hugely helpful in many situations, but we must be careful not to over-extend this and start to think people only ever want short text in all situations (probably the prevailing view in the UK, at least). This happens when people lose confidence in the value of what they have to say/share and fall prey to cynicism about other people’s desire to learn or enjoy or need or judge others’ words.
        I find it helpful to think of writing on a spectrum; sometimes we may want just one word or less; sometimes we may want many. Working out where your communication should sit on the spectrum is an important part of the communications process.
        Best from London.

        1. Tom Johnson

          I like the phrase “as little as possible, as much as necessary.” Somehow I hadn’t heard that before.

          With the help content situation, I try to resolve this dilemma about length by producing at least two options for readers: a two-page quick reference guide and a full online help site. It seems to work.

          While I think help content shares much of the same communication techniques and methods as any other type of writing, help content is somewhat unique. Few people want to read it. Almost everyone is frustrated by it. The skill levels of users vary dramatically. And so on. I’ll probably address this topic more at length in another post.

          Thanks for the link to your article on graphics. I agree with your point there — graphics/images do tend to be over-hyped as the solution to communication problems; raw text has more potential to communicate complex ideas. Together they’re almost always a winning combination. I wonder if it’s partly a left-brain/right-brain appeal.

  4. Caroline Jarrett

    After I read and enjoyed this post, I checked how long it is: just over 2,000 words.

    So, I sort of agree and I also don’t agree.

    Why I sort of agree: because yes, we’re often asked for shorter texts, and yes, we’re probably getting habituated to them. Have you seen the spoof on The Onion: “Nation shudders at large block of uninterrupted text”? http://www.theonion.com/articles/nation-shudders-at-large-block-of-uninterrupted-te,16932/

    Why I don’t agree: reading behaviour isn’t uniform. We read differently according to what we’re trying to do. The top book on Amazon.com for 2010 wasn’t a self-help guide, a recipe book, or a book of photographs: it was Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest”, 576 pages of uninterrupted text in the hardback edition. Why are people, lots of people, willing to tackle that? I suspect because they’ve heard that it’s a gripping narrative, and because they plan to read it for relaxation. As you point out: you’re reading more novels, and reading them more closely.

    In Ginny Redish’s terms, there’s ‘reading to learn’, ‘reading to do’ and ‘reading to learn to do’. I’d also add ‘reading for fun’. It’s boring and frustrating to be confronted by 576 pages of uninterrupted text if you’re ‘reading to do’, trying to figure out something quickly.

    In your terms: a quick reference guide? Well, that’s clearly ‘reading to do’. Broadly, shorter = better. That reading is a barrier between your user and what they’re trying to do.

    In short: we need to be conscious of why people are reading our writing, and design it accordingly.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Caroline, thanks for your comment and for pointing me to the Onion article. I think I’m going to print it out and put it on my cubicle wall.

      Re dividing reading into three purposes: reading to learn, reading to do, and reading to learn to do, that’s an interesting approach. I can see the first two, and the third appears to apply to education? I don’t really understand “reading to learn to do,” because wouldn’t that just apply to reading to learn? One could aspire to learn a lot of things, including how to do something, right?

      If you could point me to an article that fleshes out these concepts more extensively (is it in Ginny’s Letting Go of the Words book?), I would appreciate it. I did google it briefly.

      Your point is a good one about maintaining brevity for “reading to do” situations and allowing length for “reading to learn” situations. But how do you know what the user’s purposes are? Does all technical information fall under the reading to do category? What about best practices and sample scenario type of information?

      Also, what happens when users consult help for one purpose, but then begin browsing and learning too (perhaps because of some tangent)? At that point, they started out reading to do but then became sidetracked into reading to learn.

      Seems like this is a great concept but kind of fuzzy in application. Can you elaborate on this a bit more? Do you have specific sections in your help content that you allow yourself more length because you figure the user is in “learning to read” mode?

      1. Caroline Jarrett

        Hi Tom

        Ginny quotes her original reference for ‘reading to learn’ as “Thomas G Sticht (1975) “Reading for working : a functional literacy anthology” : Human Resources Research Organization, Alexandria, Va”. I’ve seen her talk about it often in her presentations, such as in this one: http://redish.net/content/handouts/RedishUPA_DC_2-06.pdf

        I assumed that the concepts would be in ‘Letting go of the words’ (obviously you have this excellent book – if you don’t, then run to buy it! Now!) but I just checked and they aren’t. I think maybe she decided to focus on specific tasks that readers have rather than the more general ones.

        I believe that her most extensive examination of the concepts is in her chapter “Understanding readers” in Barnum and Carliner (1993) “Techniques for Technical Communicators” (Allyn and Bacon) This is long out of print but there seem to be plenty of very cheap second-hand copies available, and well worth it even if you only read her chapter.

        Here’s what she says in her definitions of the three concepts:

        “Reading to do: Reading documents to ‘do’ or act. If readers need the documents for reference later, they can go back and look at them again. Many documents that people in business deal with are used for reading to do.

        Reading to learn: Reading to learn information that the reader will have to remember later. Textbooks ar eused for eading to learn. Reading-to-do and reading-to-learn materials require different communication techniques.

        Reading to learn to do: Describes the reading of certain documents, such as computer tutorials and users’ guides, that serve an intermediate purpose. Readers go to them wanting to accomplish their tasks quickly. They do not want to spend time reading. However, they also want to learn how to do task so that they will not have to look them up each time.”

        You also asked:

        “But how do you know what the user’s purposes are? Does all technical information fall under the reading to do category? What about best practices and sample scenario type of information?”

        OK, I’ll try to tackle those questions one at a time.

        “But how do you know what the user’s purposes are?”

        That one is easy: you go and find out. There is no substitute for asking users, and watching them, and generally getting to know them. Ginny’s book will explain how to do it, or indeed practically any book on user-centred design.

        “Does all technical information fall under the reading to do category?”

        No. Here’s a story for me right now with a bibliography manager that is sitting on my desk waiting to be installed. Here are some things I need to do and the types of reading I expect to be doing:

        – install it: reading to do. I’m expecting only to read the microcontent in the installation wizard (that’s tech comm, right?)

        – begin to use it: reading to do. There’s a ‘quick start guide’ that I’m hoping will give me some easy ideas for things I can do straight away.

        – get the best out of it: reading to learn to do. I’m hoping to find a tutorial, list of best practice tips, maybe some stories about how other people use it. I expect these to be longer-term value to me.

        – do specific tasks such as cataloguing my collection of books and papers: reading to do. I’m hoping the quick start guide will be enough, but I anticipate looking up the help if I hit any problems along the way.

        I don’t plan on any reading to learn, as I’m not going to be taking any exams in this product and I’m unlikely to be teaching anyone else about it.

        I’m definitely not going to be doing any reading for fun in connection with this product. (My current leisure reading is split between re-reading a Bill Bryson book, and “The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology” by Simon Winchester, and reading about a bibligraphic reference manager just won’t compete with either of those for me).

        “What about best practices and sample scenario type of information?”

        Did my example above answer this question? If not, then can you elaborate about what you meant?

        And then you also asked:

        “Also, what happens when users consult help for one purpose, but then begin browsing and learning too (perhaps because of some tangent)? At that point, they started out reading to do but then became sidetracked into reading to learn. ”

        Well, congratulations if that happens. It’s very nice if your writing is so seductive that it charms people into wanting to read more of it than they originally intended. Just be careful that you’re not actually failing them in that they don’t achieve their original goal.

        And also: how can you tell? If you’re finding that this is happening in your field studies and usability tests, excellent! Check with the users that they’re happy to spend extra time in this way, and you’re a winner! But if you’re just relying on the usage statistics to tell you, then I’m a *lot* more sceptical. If someone spends a lot of time in your help, is that because they are enjoying the process of learning? Or is it (sadly more likely) that they are desperately trying to answer their original question, and flailing around looking for that answer? Or, did they give up on the help altogether and go off to search on the web for a better tutorial, leaving the page open? That could look like a *long* time spent reading the page, but in fact is a total failure. (I mention this because that’s exactly what I did yesterday when trying to solve a problem in Microsoft PowerPoint).

        On my own practice: OK, I admit it, I don’t write help very much. But I do write lots of other stuff and in particular I’m currently working on a book on surveys. This conversation has been really useful for me because you’ve challenged me to think about whether my readers will be ‘reading to learn’ or ‘reading to do’. Thanks.

        PS Glad you liked the piece from the Onion. And also, I’ve been enjoying reading all the other comments here.

        1. Tom Johnson

          Caroline, thanks for expanding on the “reading to do” versus “reading to learn” difference. I agree that thinking about these two basic reading contexts is important. For example, right now my wife is lying on the bed reading a book. She’s not reading to do, right now. She’s more in a pleasure-reading mood. Sometimes even when I’m learning an application I’ll be in this mode for a while. I may be reading in general about an app in hopes of learning more about it — but I’m not searching or a specific answer to a question.

          I guess the difficult part comes in organizing the help content here. For the reading to do context, users want quick information as short as possible. But for the reading to learn context, information can be much longer. The problem comes in figuring out a good way to organize the content so that users in both contexts find the help material relevant.

          Also, thanks for the link to Redish’s powerpoint. She does show a lot of scenarios about the learning to do context.

  5. Pingback: Your attention, please

  6. Patty Blount

    I agree with you, Tom, and disagree with some of the commenters’ conclusions.

    I started reading your post and by the second paragraph, found myself going from reading to skimming. Then I checked the length. OK. Better back up, start over because I missed some details. Then I found this: “No one sits down to eat a long literary dinner any more.”

    Hmmm. In my case, definitely true. I’m an extremely fast reader, consuming four or five novels in a weekend. But blog posts and tech comm essays are not novels. There are no plots or compelling characters to suck me in. Reading this type of material requires more “work” on my part, namely, my active participation. What do I think about these statements? Why do I think that? What personal experiences have I collected that prove or disprove them?

    I frequently just don’t have the time to read to that depth along with all the other tasks I must perform in a day. The Internet has both made this task easier and harder. Easier-because there are so many ways to obtain information. Blogs, RSS feeds to my email, smart phones, Kindles, etc. And harder, because I am drowning under the volume.

    For me personally, I definitely do NOT read technical manuals the way I used to. In the ’80’s, before Windows, before the Internet, I used a networked PC environment built on a BOS platform. That stood for Business Operating Systems. I had to produce reports from that system and had to STUDY two thick manuals – a Command Reference Guide and a Report Design Guide. I mean STUDY, like I was taking the SATs. These guides were not task-oriented. I had to distill that information into something that resembled the procedures I had to perform. It took months.

    Today, I get antsy if I have to spend more than 20 minutes looking for an answer to a question. Some of that is due to old age, I suppose, but mostly, it’s due to the expectation that technology has set – I should be able to have it NOW.

    1. Tom Johnson

      whoa, Patty, when you said “Before Windows…” I took a step back. I don’t even have an understanding of that time period. :)

      I’m impressed at how many novels you read a week. I know you also write creatively, as I think I’ve seen your fiction writing blog.

      Your example of becoming exasperated after 20 minutes of searching to find the answer aligns with Caroline’s comment about “reading to do.” In that scenario, you’re clearly not merely reading to learn (although I admit I still struggle between these two categories).

      Also in your example, length is less relevant than findability. Had the answer appeared in search results, you could have zeroed in on it quickly, regardless of the length of the overall help deliverable, right? This goes along with Tim Rich’s comment about the importance of usability in minimizing problems of length.

      1. Patty Blount

        Yep, I realize I dated myself. The period to which I referred was the early ’90’s. I worked for a commercial bakery that sold their cakes in supermarkets. The system was used to network various satellite locations so we could aggregate delivery vehicle data. I was one of the few employees who was not an accountant to have a PC on her desk. I think it was a blazin’ 286 with a 20MB hard drive.

        The BOS OS I mentioned allowed us to network PCs, which wasn’t possible yet under Microsoft (or if it was, we didn’t have the means to achieve it). I later learned I was teaching myself COBOL!

        I agree with the reading to do comment… somehow, I missed that when I first replied.

  7. Robert Hempsall - Information Designer

    Great post Tom, with so many points to comment on, but I’ll stick with just one.

    I very much agree with your comments about links within text being extremely tempting to a reader with a poor attention span – I include myself very firmly in that category.

    The convention to credit/reference others via links embedded in text has become so strong that the impact it could have on copy has probably become overlooked.

    In the good old days of paper, these links would have been the references so beloved of the academic fraternity, all grouped together at the end of the chapter. Of course, for the writer in that situation, the reader would be unlikely to have all the other texts to hand.

    What’s to stop us doing the same with web copy, with a short list of related links at the bottom of the article? The virtual etiquette of cross-linking is met, and we can reduce the chances of our own text being sacrificed by curious minds and twitchy cursor-fingers.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Robert, thanks for your comment. I did address this issue of hyperlinks in an earlier post (Removing Inline Links to Increase Readability). We had a lengthy exchange in the comments about this strategy.

      I agree that removing links does improve reader throughput, so to speak, but there’s no good alternative convention for linking. The list of reference links at the end just doesn’t work because sometimes we add a link without officially referencing the article in the post.

      Additionally, the conventions of the web are firmly set and changing them only draws more attention to a different style, so it fails too. But keeping the inline links to a sane minimum is a good strategy.

  8. Robert Hempsall - Information Designer

    That’s an interesting tool. The title is severely questionable, but I can see something like that working well as a browser feature to minimise distractions. I’m sure it would be welcomed by those who produce their own content, although those with ads to place might not be so keen!

    1. Tom Johnson

      Are you referring to the notebook tool I mentioned in my post? It is a cool idea — surely there’s already something out there that provides a notebook toolbar for the content you read online. The tool I mentioned only works on one site (but there’s a ton of content on that site).

  9. Paula

    Sometimes I find myself bookmarking instead of reading. “That looks interesting, let me bookmark it and I’ll read it when I have more time (or fewer distractions, or more energy, or after I’ve done some preliminary research, etc.).”

    So instead of (more likely, in addition to) a culture of reading (for whatever purpose), we now have a culture of collecting locations at which certain information is located. In a sense, it’s less like dogearing/bookmarking a page in a book than collecting the books themselves.

    And this is not confined to reading — I have virtual shelves (folders) cluttered with radio stations, music blogs, art sites, educational video sites, product catalogs, websites of colleagues and clients, and sites I use for research.

    In fact, my bookmark folders — and on a smaller scale, my RSS feed pages — are organized much like my bookcases (including the ever-present to-be-sorted pile on the floor).

    1. Tom Johnson

      Paula, I think the habit of bookmarking is similar to content curation, if you share the bookmarks. It’s certainly a growing trend. I too bookmark a lot of content. Instapaper is great for this, and its growing popularity only reinforces the trend you describe.

  10. Whitney Quesenbery


    I think you’ve missed a key point here about how much we want to read in different contexts.

    When I’m reading an engaging novel, long is good: I just don’t want it to end. But when I’m skimming through instructions, the fewer words I have to read the better.

    I also have to wonder whether the repeated complaint about “too many words” isn’t really about the word count, but about the density of the information and how this makes us feel about the information. We all hope that things will be easy to use, so even two pages full of text is a real signal that this one isn’t.

    This might just mean better information design, but it might also mean thinking about the journey:

    – Does it branch, with choices that lead to different paths?

    – Is it a series of small actions that add up to a big result?

    – Do most people need just a few steps, while others have more complicated needs?

    Each of these is a different kind of story. The structure, layout and words all need to help people the big picture.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Whitney, I like your summary about different contexts of reading requiring different lengths. I completely agree with you there. In help scenarios, just as with tax instructions, one would hope that the instructions are as brief as possible. But even with taxes, many times I wouldn’t mind some elaboration and more examples to clarify. Even if it balloons the instructions, it would still be worthwhile because you’re right — too much density, even if I whittle down the instructions to two pages, isn’t appealing. Sometimes this brevity does a disservice to the reader. Wow, this whole topic is becoming so multi-faceted.

  11. Jimmy Breck-McKye

    I can concur with Carr; time on the web has shot my attention span to pieces.

    One factor, I think, is the way the internet is completely saturated with adverts, and how this make readers reluctant to commit much time to text. Performing a search, I’ll typically have to scan through five or six pages of irrelevant content, or worse, plain spam, and that means I assess the worth of an article within just a few sentences.

    Because I’m so used to articles that lead me in with a few keywords, only to barrage me with pointless links and content-free copy, maybe I’ve learned to treat all texts as webpages: texts which must prove their worth to *me*, rather than gems of knowledge I must unearth with patience and discipline.

    As for your colleagues, I sometimes wonder if people have unrealistic expectations about deliverables. “Your quick reference guide MUST fit these seven different use cases, but it MUSTN’T say anything irrelevant to any of them, it MUST be easy enough for a neophyte to read, but it MUSTN’T mislead an engineer who needs to know the unambiguous specifics, it MUST have plenty of white space and fit around our marketing aesthetic, but you MUSN’T bother them with requests for stylistic direction. But most importantly of all, if you can’t fit it onto a postage stamp, it’s a complete failure.”

    How do you communicate the need to compromise on deliverables? I’m sure copywriters and journalists face similar problems, so I wonder how they communicate these difficulties?

  12. Debbie

    Hi Tom,

    I think the reason for the re-wiring of our brains is that we are subjected to a daily deluge of information, all competing for our attention, in formats which practically didn’t even exist 15 years ago. I have noticed myself, that it’s really hard to keep reading a long text when it’s presented on a computer screen. I’m trying to save trees, and for this reason, I recently bought a 7 inch Android-based tablet, for the purposes of reading ebooks, magazines in PDF format, newspapers and articles on the internet. I find it much less of a distraction and more comfortable to read long texts with the tablet device, in comparison to sitting in front of a monitor (it’s also much better for my poor back, neck and elbows, which have started getting tired of my profession). I think I have doubled the amount of books and articles that I usually read since getting the tablet. As soon as I received my tablet, I started to wonder whether we shouldn’t be designing our user guides and quick ref guides for reading on such devices.

    Another thing I have discovered lately, is that graphics far outweigh the effectiveness of the printed word. You know the old saying. Even simple graphics for the non-artists among us can convey a message effectively. Those without any text at all, or with the bare minimum in universally understood acronyms, save us the trouble of getting them translated. I’ve been adding a lot of such graphics to my manuals lately.


  13. Pingback: Shrink to Fit « Brain Traffic Blog

  14. Pingback: A technical communicator’s history lesson « Write Trends

  15. Pingback: Reading Behavior Now: Less Text Please | Predicate, LLC

  16. Gary Richards

    The Method of delivery – digital or on old style black text on paper – is irrelevant. Rubbish is rubbish and good writing is good writing no matter the format. I will say this, maybe bells, whistles and flashing lights are dumbing down those who are already dumb?

    We can choose what we wish to read or absorb into out grey matter. The suggestion that the digital age is dumbing us down I refute, if anything it is a more enlightening time. We can choose whatever we read, from whomever and from wherever.

    Rewired nope, less in-depth reading than 50 years ago nope! More informed yep – wider range of sources – yep.. ignore the bells, whistles and flashing lights – easy if your interested in the the text before you.

  17. Backlinks

    I agree with your thoughts here and I really love your blog! I’ve bookmarked it so that I can come back & read more in the future.

  18. Pingback: Competing with Mobile Devices for Attention « Mobile Ministry Magazine (MMM)

  19. Pingback: Old Habits Die Hard « jessicaMshaw

  20. Pingback: Making Help Content Enjoyable to Read — Impossible Quest? | I'd Rather Be Writing

  21. Pingback: The Future of Scholarly Monographs in a Rapidly-Changing Publishing Landscape | PUB802

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>