TextPrefs Survey Report Part 1

Written by Jamie Freeman

User preferences for reading text on the web

Introduction

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.

Read Part 2 >

Comments

  • Mads -

    I like your survey a lot! However, I think it is interesting that an article about readability has a text color with so little contrast against the white background, which makes it really hard to read…

  • Jamie Freeman -

    Hey Mads, thanks for that. You're not the first person to suggest our text lacks sufficient contrast. We'll review it asap and I'll keep you posted. All the best :-)

  • Jamie Freeman -

    Hi Mads, hpefully you find the new text colour more readable? All the best.

  • Mads -

    It is much better now! :-)

  • Paul Olyslager -

    Looking forward for the results of your survey!

  • Ian Eiloart -

    Why is any of this the business of the web designer? Leave it to the browser, and user preferences. There's no need to specify font size at all - what's good for one reader is bad for another, depending on the person, the hardware, and even the time of day.

  • Jamie Freeman -

    If everyone in the whole wide world used their own style-sheets I might agree with you. But virtually no-one does. Sure, people can re-size their fonts, but you'd be amazed the number of people (ordinary people, not designers or experts) who are amazed when I show them you can even do that!

    I'm guessing you have a style-sheet that overrides every website you visit, so I feel compelled to ask; what business is it of yours? ;-)

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