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Several years ago, Nicholas Carr wrote an article for The Atlantic entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” where he explored the idea that he now expects to take in information the way it is presented on the Internet – a “swiftly moving stream of particles,” not digging deeply into any content.

This idea resurfaced as I was presenting HFI’s The Science and Art of Effective Web and Application Design course. In that course, we discuss the fact that reading on electronic devices is a different experience than reading a physical document, due to the presentation context and the lower resolution online (among other things).

The group discussed briefly the question whether, as screen resolution gets crisper, such as on high-resolution handheld devices, users will “savor” the content more, as opposed to the “fast-food” access we expect of visitors to our sites. Will we spend more quality time with the content presented on our handheld devices and will that make us smarter?

Is comprehension using digital media the same as physical media?

Jordan Schugar, et al. (2011) compared reading comprehension, critical reading, and use of study skills between students using eReaders vs. paper texts. In their research, they highlighted that there are some similarities and differences between the two contexts. The eReaders (such as the Nook, Kindle, or iPad) allow users to highlight and take notes, but it is different from writing in the physical margin with a physical pen. The eReaders allow the user to instantly look up word meanings with a built-in dictionary, but they observed that this “might either improve comprehension (through vocabulary development) or disrupt comprehension (through breaks in fluency).”

They used a Nook as their eReader for the research and found no significant difference in reading comprehension between those using the eReader and those using traditional text. The participants using the eReaders did use fewer “strategies” for comprehension – participants reported more highlighting and taking notes with physical texts. Participants also “bookmarked” traditional texts (folded the corners down) more frequently than bookmarking on the eReader (although this was more frequent than highlighting and taking notes). Participants were trained on the “strategies” available on the Nook, so knowing they could do it should not have been a problem. But, participants had likely been practicing “writing in books” for many more years than they have known about annotation capabilities in their eReader!

There were a few other notable observations. Not surprisingly, participants preferred the portability of the eReader. The researchers also comment that the participants may have lacked the motivation that a self-motivated reader might have. For our designs, we have to ask ourselves, do we expect the readers of our content to be highly-motivated readers?

Sandra Wright, et al. (2013) conducted research with children to determine if they used “literacy resources” (e.g. a dictionary) more frequently with electronic text (using an iPad) than physical text. They found that their participants did use the electronic dictionary more frequently, but it did not increase their comprehension level.

Their participants did take longer to read text on the iPad, but it is unclear if that is because it was “harder to read” or because technology is distracting. Shirley Grimshaw, et al. (2007) conducted a study that found children are distracted by technology. Will our users be distracted by the capabilities of the technology on which our content is delivered?

Are handheld devices helping us learn other tasks?

So, electronic documents don’t increase reading comprehension, but apparently do not detract from it either. Are handheld devices helping us learn other tasks?

Doug Boari, et al. (2012) studied whether or not handheld devices were enhancing our spatial skills. He and his colleagues presented participants with visual representations of 3-D objects (Mental Rotation Test pairs) and the task of determining if they were the same (simply rotated) or if they were not the same.

Participants went through three trials – one where they could only think about rotating the object (“mental rotation” only), one where they could touch the object on the screen to rotate it, and one where they could tilt the device to rotate it. Participants were equally accurate across the trials and across platforms (iPad and iPhone were used). However, response time was faster with mental rotation than with the devices, but it required more work. The devices allowed the participant to directly experiment with different rotations, resulting in a slower trial-and-error process, but less reported effort.

Interestingly, during mental rotations, some participants used their hand as an analogue to the object, turning it to “visualize” how the object might turn, but that did not affect overall response times. Also, participants were faster with the iPhone than the iPad. The team didn’t have enough data to comment on the cause of this difference, but perhaps an iPhone is closer to simply rotating the hand than an iPad.

The handheld devices, therefore, did not appear to be augmenting skills, but rather exchanging mental load for physical load.

Cross-cultural considerations for user interface design
VIMM model presented in HFI design courses, showing the goal of good design is to reduce the load on these human systems


Better screen resolution on electronic devices does present more clear text to the user, but that does not mean they will be consuming the information in more detail. As the studies show, electronic text isn’t hurting our comprehension (or destroying our ability to mentally rotate objects), but rather it is a different tool. Electronic devices give us more ability to do different things – to experiment via trial-and-error or to quickly read about a related topic.

A handheld device (and any electronic device) is a different kind of tool with a different context. Yes, screen resolution is getting close to words on printed paper, so perhaps people can read just as well on each, but the power of the electronic document to link to cross-referenced content (or quickly jump to Facebook for “one quick peek at our friends’ status updates”) isn’t matched by paper documents. The content on our Websites needs to be designed for that context – not for the sit-down-and-savor readers, but for the busy, distracted, user who wants to quickly find the content they came looking for.

You may create content your users want to read-through and deeply understand and modern handheld devices will let them do that. But those devices also let the user bounce away when the content isn’t compelling or exactly what they are looking for. We must continue to design for the context of our users – the device is much more than just the screen resolution.


Boari, D., Fraser, M., Stanton Fraser, D., Cater, K. (2012). Augmenting Spatial Skills with Mobile Devices. CHI 2012, May 5-10, 2012, Austin, Texas, USA.

Grimshaw, S., Dungworth, N., McKnight, C. & Morris, A. (2007). Electronic books: Children’s reading and comprehension. British Journal of Educational Technology, 38(4), pp 583-599.

Nicholas Carr. Is Google Making Us Stupid? The Atlantic, July 2008.

Schugar, J.T., Schugar, H. & Penny, C. (2011). A nook or a book: Comparing college students’ reading comprehension level, critical thinking, and study skills. International Journal of Technology in Teaching and Learning, 7(2), pp. 174-192.

Wright, S., Fugett, A., & Caputa, F. (2013). Using E-readers and Internet Resources to Support Comprehension. Educational Technology & Society, 16(1), pp. 367-379.

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

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Reader comments

Tim Follrath


My oldest 4th grade class just got new Google Chrome Books to use as a supplemental tool during a portion of their day. As I was there during the overview I saw a lot of upside to this, especially with regard to typing, writing as well as the immersive and interactive learning that can come from this form of technology. Among all the things they will be using these for, one of the lessons that stood out for me was when the teacher led class participation by displaying (via overhead projector) a scientific hypothesis or physical description to the class. Students then anonymously wrote on what they thought the answer was as well as assessed the best responses by voting/commenting all from their individual Chrome Books. After this the teacher would lead the class through all the responses and voting comments to reinforce and trace the learning path.

As I sat and watched the kids do this I thought "what a great way to get everybody to participate in writing." Since all the kids will be on a level playing field, with regard to writing from their "word processor" Chrome Books, I am curious to see if this technology helps motivate the kids to blossom and be more creative writers.



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