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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Do narrower columns hold up better for body of written work?

Pat Whitcomb came across a very intriguing article in the February '07 issue of Training & Development magazine that says keeping line lengths shorter makes text easier to read and remember.* (Hmmm – did this asterisk cause you to reflexively glance to the footnote and interrupt your train of thought? Sorry about that!) IBM researchers evaluated paragraphs at 40 percent screen width versus 80 with a device that measures eye-gaze tracking. They found that narrow columns were more comprehensible and required less re-reading. However, this came at the cost of “paragraph abandonment,” a shift by readers to skimming completely over segments of text.

What’s telling to me, is that the IBM web page on this research (linked above) displays text in a single, wide column. I like this wider style for displaying text on my computer because I can then scroll line-by-line and not be forced to go back up again as required with two columns side-by-side. For example, see this latest edition of the Minnesota Section ASQ newsletter. Notice how it shifts format from one column to two. Observe how you read these. Which do you prefer?

My preference is to print pieces written in two-column format and then use my finger as a guide to maintain focus on the line of text. I picked this up from a business colleague years ago after he took a speed-reading course.

* “The Long and the Short of Learning” by Peter Orton, David Beymer and Daniel Russell.


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