Is Digital Content More Effective Than Paper Content?

Does Reading Speed Matter?

When we think of content design, the aim is to balance content relevance with content volume. Because less is often more, “minimalism” is the recommended design concept applied to most technical content. It makes perfect sense and ensures that readers receive concise and yet relevant information. However, there is one aspect that we might not take into account when creating content: Reading speed.

Studies have shown that reading speed differs for printed content compared to digital content. For instance, some studies and articles suggest that a person’s reading speed is 10%-30% slower for digital content over printed content. In addition, educational content delivered in digital format can affect cognitive abilities to effectively assimilate learned content.

Several industries rely on the use of digital content these days to reach their target audiences. Social media is a prime example. But even traditional industries such as the manufacturing sector have taken advantage of digital content. The type of content that is available to end users is diverse and addresses multiple information needs.

Accounting for Reading Speed

Nobody can deny the impact that digital content has on our professional and personal lives. However, delivering content in digital format alone mostly affects ease of access. Ease of use such as readability and comprehension are separate design challenges.

As the delivery of digital content continues to grow, understanding the impact of reading speed should also help content creators refine their approach. I should note though that reading speed is not merely an individual’s ability to read at a certain pace. Reading speed is rather a combination of multiple factors that impact the pace and effectiveness at which we can assimilate content.

This means that content creators must understand the reading conditions under which their targeted readers consume digital content. Some factors such as the device type are easier to accommodate than light conditions and screen quality (eye strain), or the work environment in which they operate.

Likewise, when content was first distributed in digital format, the approach was to replicate the layout of printed content. The initial instinct was likely to provide a familiar look and feel to the end user. And it was also a familiar approach for content creators to present information this way.

The creation of the Portable Document Format (PDF) in 1993 by Adobe illustrates the early mindset of digital content design. PDF is still a preferred file format for document management systems because it allows easy document archival, retrieval, and search.

Information Overload and Sense of Urgency

Nevertheless, digital content, and particularly the amount of content that we have been accustomed to, can cause content saturation and superficiality. The email dilemma is an example that we can all relate to. Research indicates that the majority of emails that we receive are irrelevant or simply SPAM. Thus, creating targeted and concise content has become even more important. In a way, each of us is a content creator, whether by choice or by necessity. Today’s digital world has created a greater sense of urgency and we tend to move faster than ever before. This limits the time we commit to deciphering and reading needed information.

For example, website developers have long known that a good website design extends the time a visitor spends on a website. Statistics show that most visitors make their decision to stay on or leave a website within seconds. Obviously, this short timespan does not apply to all content and delivery channels. However, it highlights the fact that we tend to move on quickly if presented content does not meet our needs right away.

Content Effectiveness and User Experience

In today’s work environments we must consider the target audience’s sense of urgency and reading speed ability as additional enablers of content effectiveness. In other words, content effectiveness and user experience are closely linked. If content is well organized and structured it will improve reading speed ability and enhance the user experience.

Furthermore, digital content can take advantage of added functionality provided by an app and/or device (e.g., smartphone or tablet). This advantage can improve distribution, content access speed, navigation, and contextual content retrieval. But the potential of digital content can also add complexity that printed content does not have.

For instance, adapting content and maintaining its effectiveness across multiple devices and channels is challenging. Different device types and distribution channels have their own limitations and requirements. This added complexity requires content creators to be more flexible and creative, but also more disciplined. Optimizing content only for one specific device or channel might not be enough to maintain the desired content effectiveness and user experience.

Shifting Mindsets and Approaches

The ongoing transition from printed content to digital content over the past 15-20 years has triggered a shift for content creators. On the one hand, content creators find themselves spending more time overall on planning their content and its distribution. On the other hand, target audiences benefit from more relevant and more concise content. In addition, readers have more options to access and consume relevant content.

In general, the mindset for effective content design continues to evolve as innovation and new technologies offer more options and possibilities for digital content. The first phase of evolution was to simply transition printed content to digital content. The second phase involved adapting content to take advantage of new devices and presentation methods. The collection of user data (analytics) further advanced this phase and the level of sophistication applied to understanding end users.

We are still in the second phase but have reached a level of maturity that is transitioning us into the third phase. This new phase is enabled by Artificial Intelligence (AI), which moves increasingly into the forefront of content creation and decision making. Content effectiveness should benefit from AI and deliver even more targeted content at the right time.

Conclusion

Over the past two decades, digital content has unleashed new possibilities to reach target audiences. But these possibilities have also brought new challenges that require a different mindset and approach for content design. In addition, we also have changed our habits and how we consume content.

Moreover, as digital content continues to grow and replaces traditional content delivery, the question of whether digital content is more effective is essential. However, this notion assumes that we create content that takes advantage of these new possibilities and innovative technologies. Replicating past approaches could marginalize content effectiveness and the user experience compared to traditional content delivery.

Our limited time to decipher information and the pace at which we make decisions today demand content that keeps up with our sense of urgency. Therefore, we could use reading speed as an indicator of content effectiveness.

Academic institutions have researched reading speed and the impact on cognitive abilities to assimilate content. Their research highlights that reading speed can be up to 30% slower for digital content. From this research, one could conclude that digital content might be less effective under certain conditions.

I believe that digital content could be more effective if further adapted and optimized for a truly digital environment. One important criterion for enhancing digital content effectiveness is to better understand the conditions under which target audiences process content. This should also include an assessment of their environment.

For example, accessing content for professional purposes is different from looking up content for personal needs. A work environment exposes us to different conditions (e.g., expected work pace, stress level, amount of content) than a private setting. This certainly affects how we experience content and how much time we take to read it.

In conclusion, content creators have their work cut out for them.

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