New research from the Neilsen Norman group casts doubt on previous research which had shown that readers are no longer losing reading comprehension when they read on smaller screens.
In 2010, researchers at the University of Alberta found that reading comprehension was impaired when content was presented on a mobile-size screen versus a larger computer screen. A simple explanation for this result was that, with a small screen, users saw less of the text at any given time, so they had to rely more on their memory to access contextual information needed during reading. In other words, the smaller screen resulted in a higher working-memory load. People could not sustain that higher load, so their comprehension suffered.
In our research, conducted six years later, we found a surprisingly different result. We asked 276 participants to read a variety of articles on various topics on either a mobile phone or a personal computer. Some of the articles were easy and some were difficult. After each article, we asked participants to answer a few questions to measure their level of comprehension of the content. We found no practical differences in the comprehension scores of the participants, whether they were reading on a mobile device or a computer.
You can find the complete report on their website; one detail worth noting is that the test subject read the difficult pieces slightly slower on mobile devices (learned or instinctual response to the screen limitation? you tell me).
All in all, I am not surprised to read about the different results nor am I puzzled by the conflicting research.
The differences can be explained by the differences in reading material used for the studies, and by improvements in mobile tech over the past six years.
The recent study tested readers on their comprehension of both easy and complex articles (there was no mention of the apps or devices used).
That earlier study had the test subjects read "the privacy policies of 10 popular websites: eBay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Myspace, Orkut, Wikipedia, WindowsLive, Yahoo!, and YouTube" and then tested their reading comprehension.
Those policies are ridiculously hard to understand under the best of conditions, so when the test subjects tried to read them on 2010-era mobile web browsers, reading comprehension dropped.
The problem wasn't readers, or their reading methods. No, the poor results in the 2010 study stemmed from the horrible tech which had been inflicted upon users.
While there were a lot of mobile reading apps which looked great in 2010, most web browsers (and most websites for that matter) simply looked terrible on small screens.
This was the era where any serious website developed an iPhone app to compensate for how terrible said site looked on that smartphone. No one was building great mobile sites in 2010, so it is no wonder that test subjects were flummoxed in the 2010 study.
All that changed over the last six years as first responsive web design became the standard, and then Google started using its position as the king of search engines to force sites to improve mobile performance.
It's no wonder that test subjects scored higher in 2016; the only question worth asking is whether the test subjects would have scored even higher had they been allowed to read on their preferred mobile device.
image by danxoneil