On a quite regular basis, someone publishes a study proclaiming — horror of horrors — that on the Web, people don’t always read content all the way through but skim and skip. Oh no! The Web is rotting our brains! Oh no! Writers have to change everything they do!
Bosh. Did they not bother to ask if people skipped and skimmed before the Web? Did they ever pause to consider how people read newspapers or the magazines in doctor’s waiting rooms?
Skimming and skipping is perfectly normal reader behavior. It does not indicate that there is a problem with the content or with the reader. It is not a problem to be fixed, though it may be something that writers need to do a little bit more to support.
This rant is provoked by this LinkedIn discussion, which points to an article that, essentially, redubs progressive disclosure as “hypotext”.
Several folks (including myself) commented that the kind of information hiding it describes is a bad idea. But here I want to take a step back from that and look at the underlying notion that reader’s skipping and skimming behavior is a problem that needs to be fixed, rather than totally expected and appropriate reader behavior.
The underlying idea here seems to be that if a piece of content is good, then every reader will want, need, and appreciate, every single word of it, while requiring no other words at all from any other piece of content. But that expectation is utterly ridiculous.
If you paved a path, would you regard it as a failure if someone did not step on every paving stone, or if they ever wanted to go somewhere not on your path?
Maybe it is the writer’s ego. We want every word to be consumed and appreciated. Maybe it is the influence of the school system which still puts so much emphasis on learning texts and passing comprehension tests, rather than actually doing useful things in the world. Maybe it is a genuine zeal for the reader’s convenience which makes us think that if they are skimming and skipping, they must be unhappy.
In the LinkedIn discussion, Fer O’Neil describes an experiment in which his group used dropdowns to hide screenshots from a procedure and tested it with a group of users. Predictably, they hated it.
Why predictably? Because we are really good at skimming and skipping. It is how we read and it takes no learning and very little mental energy. It is by far the easiest way to move through a text of any reasonable size. Figuring out that some text is hidden and that there is a mechanism for revealing it, on the other hand, takes learning and mental energy and interrupts the reader’s flow and concentration.
But my point here is not that the solution is bad, but that the problem is non-existent. Skipping and skimming is normal reader behavior. It does not need to be fixed, and readers will not thank you for the attempt.
Every reader is on an individual journey, trying to find the information they need to gain the confidence to attempt some task. Exactly what they need to get to that point varies based on many variables.
- What exactly is the task.
- In what context, and with what constraints, is the task performed.
- What similar tasks has the reader done in the past.
- How well does the reader understand the background of the task and the tools.
- How well does the reader’s education and experience equip them to understand the language in which the content they are reading is expressed.
- How confident is the reader generally, and in this type of task.
- How motivated are they; what is at stake?
- How urgent is the task; do they have time to wait or must they act immediately.
With so many variables in play, every reader’s journey is unique. And because these factors can change from day to day and hour to hour, the full journey cannot be anticipated even for a single reader attempting a single task. The reader could not anticipate it, let alone the writer.
All content, therefore, is written for a reader who is on an individual journey. Just as a traveller drives an individual route in a generic car over generic roads, the reader’s journey is made up of generic content, written to serve the unknown goals of many readers. Having to navigate, steer, and make decisions are part of the necessities of travel. Having to search, link, skim, and skip are part of the necessities of research. Travellers and readers have fully accepted them, and mastered them. Good content, like a good road, is easier to navigate, but it does not obviate the need for navigation.
Any attempt to meet these needs in a more direct way would require dynamic real-time information about the exact state of the reader’s learning as well as the ability to intuit which piece of information would exactly meet their next need. We may know more about our readers than ever before, and may even be able to tailor content to their needs to a certain extent, but we will never have the data, nor the algorithm, to roll out the perfect text before their eyes in real time.
Anything less than this, though, simply disrupts the reader’s well established and highly efficient skimming and skipping behavior which they use to navigate most texts that they read. Content navigation is not improved by fancy do-dads that try to eliminate skipping and skimming, but by well structured text that supports them.
That readers are skipping and skimming through your content is not, in itself, a problem. It is the behavior we should expect and support.
We need to stop trying to fix things that are not broken.
There are quite a few things that genuinely are broken. We should focus on those.