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Study Suggests Better Tech Means Higher Reading Comprehension on the Small Screen

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

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Barry Marks December 12, 2016 um 5:57 pm

I do some reading on my phone and more of it on my Kindle Voyage. I haven’t tested this but I’m pretty sure I read faster on the small screen of my phone. I’ve done enough reading on both and had that in mind enough that I’m pretty confident about that.

As for comprehension, again without testing, I can’t tell any difference.

I’m limited to short reading sessions on my phone because of the LCD so I’ll often begin a chapter on the phone and finish it on my Voyage, or the other way around. When a chapter is about half way done on one the Kindle the half on the phone is usually read more quickly.

I am a little bothered by you simply telling us why the studies got different results. You may have some expertise in this area but if you do you didn’t state it so it sounds a bit like a guess dressed up like a fact. I’m not disagreeing with your conclusions. I’m only wondering if you’re really qualified to make them seem like facts. Studies are usually carefully thought out and conflicting results are often due to complex reasons and can take considerable further work to clarify. Making guesses is reasonable. We all do that. But they should be labeled as such.


DaveMich December 13, 2016 um 12:01 pm

"Studies are usually carefully thought out and conflicting results are often due to complex reasons and can take considerable further work to clarify."

I disagree. "Studies" usually prove whatever the people who set them up want to prove.

There’s a lot of unthinking bias against reading on smaller screens because of fewer words on the screen. The "reasons" why this is bad thing are purely conjecture. Newspapers and magazines are deliberately laid out to have narrow columns so that scanning back and forth across the column is eased, but a group of self-appointed experts huffs and puffs at the similarly narrow column of text on mobile devices. Fortunately they have little influence beyond whatever committee funds their position.

Jeff Mcneill December 17, 2016 um 10:36 pm

Those who say that research is simply confirmation bias don’t know good research from bad research, as they both exist. There are several factors which would contribute to a change of results:

– Better technology (specifically screen technology, brightness levels, dpi, and typography advances)
– A better-designed experiment (what reading material to read)
– A lot more experience reading on a smaller screen by the population in general

Nevertheless there are human factors which don’t change much, the physical, organic reading apparatus (the eyes), lighting, etc. These can be seen by generational advances in the ebook reader, which tends toward a certain size for handiness, words on a page, etc.

Yes, there is bias against reading on the small(er) screen, evolutionary bias.

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