Is Multiple-Column Online Text Better? It Depends on how you read the research!

From the Oops, my slip is showing department: Albert Ip over at Random Walk in E-Learning is not allowing comments and does not seem to have an email address for contact. That leaves no alternative but to comment here although I’d prefer to have been able to do this quietly.

Albert has posted Is Multiple-Column Online Text Better? It Depends! in response to an article in Usability News. He quotes from the study:

The purpose of this study was to examine how multiple columns and text justification impact online reading in terms of reading speed, comprehension, and satisfaction of a narrative passage. Results from this study showed that reading speed was significantly faster for two-column full-justified text than for one-column full-justified text. Post-hoc analyses showed that it was the fastest readers that benefited the most from this format.

From there he goes on to argue that the study is flawed because:

The sample text was short, so short that it can be displayed in one screen, hence the experiment result. We know that if the text is longer, we will then need to scroll down to read the rest of column one. After which, we need to scroll up again to the top to read the second column. I don’t see any possibility that such a realistic scenario will produce the same result.

That would be a valid comment if the sample texts were as short as Albert believes. Unfortunately he seems to have based his comments on the images provided in the article as illustrations. The two column piece doesn’t represent a continuous section of text and according to the article the sample was 6 pages of text:

Passages were presented on Dell Dimension 4600C desktop with a 17” display running 1024 x 768 screen resolution. Each of the passages was presented on six consecutive pages; users clicked on an arrow at the bottom of each page to advance to a subsequent page or return to a previous page. No scrolling was required. Users read the passages at a distance of approximately 60 cm and passages were displayed in 10pt Verdana font.

The real problem may be that the material was carefully paginated so that readers of multiple column material did not have to scroll the text up and down. The lesson here may be that reading accurately is always more important than reading quickly.

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