Thursday, April 12, 2007

Tracking eyes in print and in online (3)

The Eyetrack07 report throws up the question about the future of text online, at least to some degree. What is the future of text online? In an article, Guillermo E. Franco poses related questions to the usability guru Jakob Nielsen; but as he was probably too busy, he asked Chris Nodder of the Nielsen Norman Group to answer. And Chris Nodder still sees a bright future for text online. The lay-out of the article complies with the suggestions for journalists: the use of the Q&A form, which is stressed in the typography.

In the article there is a mix of questions about readability, writability, the eternal question of pixels and the improvement of usability in online newspapers. In the article there are a lot of observation and presuppositions. Together they are a mixed bag from which everyone can take what they like.

I might have missed something, but I did not understand the implicit relationship between tips for authors and the pixels in the fragment on screen readability. Of course the use of white spaces between paragraphs, the listings and the use of bullets make articles more attractive and makes reading from the screen more pleasant.

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Just in case that you do not have time to read the full article, here are the suggestions for journalists, as spelled out in the article.

We suggest that writers:
· Use the inverted pyramid. Start with the conclusion.
· Write abstracts or summaries for longer content.
· Tell readers what questions they can expect an article to answer.
· Make small chunks of content with one or two ideas in each chunk.
· Group content that is similar.
· Write unique titles, headings and subheadings.
· Make lists, not paragraphs. Bulleted lists and white space can break up text.
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Straight after these sensible, but not uncommon suggestions Nodder dives into the pixel issue:
Interestingly, although there are some very high-resolution displays commercially available (especially on Tablet PCs), the original prediction of 300 dpi being common by 2007 does not seem to have come about. The technology exists, but it just isn't being exploited yet. Additionally, until computers are produced in a form that makes them as suitable as paper for reading in multiple environments, paper will still be a major factor.

Of course there is a relationship between lay-out and displays, but it feels I like missed something in the argumentation. Besides I am wondering about the statement that only a 300 dpi technology will be the saving grace. Even the iLiad of iRex Technologies with 160 dpi makes reading from a screen a pleasure for the eyes. The difference is between the interlacing technology and the e-Ink technology used in the iLiad.

The question about the future of text online is IMHO more than a question of screens and writing methods. It is a generation problem in terms of media, but also in terms of users of the media. When I started out with digital media (yes I avoid new media) in 1980, there was only text. With ASCII symbols (128 symbols consisting of the undercast and capital alphabet, numerals and diacritical signs) you could make some rudimentary drawings (see the logo of the Fido network), but that was all. Also in videotext, drawings of cars had square wheels. By the end of the decade, it was possible to produce graphs, which was a great improvement for publishing. Digital music was around, but sending files online was still uncommon. But from 1995 onwards music came up, photographs could be transmitted and displayed and music still took a while, but eventually got into use.

But having all these media types available still does not mean that life changes immediately. A culture change is needed for this and these changes take time; in fact it might take more generations; these days I measure generations in completed academic cycles of four years. I am very text-oriented. Music is not an integral part of my communication pattern. Visually I use photographs, but that is what I did also when I was editing print. In order to use video I will have to learn some tricks still, let alone that I communicate in video.

Perhaps there is an immediate future for text online, perhaps even a bright one. However this future will be limited by the speed in which new generations pick up music, video and internet broadcast.

Blog Posting Number: 722

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