User preferences for reading text on the web
Ask a web designer how wide columns of text should be. Now ask another. And another.
You will now have three different answers.
Fair enough; all websites don't have to be the same after all. But so often in my experience, all three are probably too wide, and I got tired of arguing with designers about it. I wanted some facts to go on.
So I looked. And looked. Hey Google, what's up? At the time I couldn't find anything on the specific subject of what constitutes a readable column width on-screen. (This situation is slowly being addressed.)
All I wanted to know was what was generally considered to constitute a 'readable' column width for text on screen. But these things are always relative. A readable column width is dependent on font size, typeface, colour, leading and alignment, just for starters.
But those variables have always existed. Now we've got computers, invented specifically to complicate matters! So we also have to consider screen size, resolution, installed fonts, anti-aliasing and distance to screen.
Thankfully, the web has arrived in order to add a further layer of complexity… Let's not forget to think about re-sizeable web layouts, user stylesheets and font size adjustment.
Oh, and the opticians have got a thing or two to say on the subject (although getting any of it published on the web seems to be beyond them!), including subjects like 'comfortable scan angle of the human eye'. This is important as it feeds directly in to the issue of 'distance to screen' mentioned earlier.
It started with column widths
Column widths are well established in the print world. You know why books are that wide? Because over many hundred of years we've figured out a layout that is 'just right' for reading. Like Baby Bear's bed. Not too wide, not too narrow.
Newspapers have different reading requirements, hence the narrow column. The articles tend to be shorter and are even written in a particular fashion. You'll notice that as the space given to a particular story increases - say, for in-depth political coverage - so the column width tends to increase, allowing a more relaxed reading experience. The editorial pages don't use the same dense, justified columns as the news pages. They're probably more like a typical book layout in fact.
So, why is column width so important? If it's too wide you will have trouble tracking back to the word at the start of the next line, interrupting the flow of your reading. You'll always be double-checking and occasionally you might even read the same line twice!
A column that's too narrow causes different problems; your eyes will flick back and forth and quickly become tired. For longer passages of text this is especially important; getting tired for a ten second sprint might be fine, but for a marathon?
So in the end we had written a slightly more complicated question:
"What are the preferred column widths, font sizes, typefaces and line-heights for reading text online."
All this week we present our answer, starting tomorrow with a look our methodology and readable typefaces.