April 2nd, 2010

Horizontalism and Readability

By Frank Chimero

It is 2010, and most of us have been living comfortably with the internet for roughly ten years. We’ve seen grocery delivery services come and go, websites about cats appear and disappear and then come back again, and our infatuation move from dancing hamsters to dancing babies to personal websites to social media.

At this point, we are beginning to have a firm grasp of what the internet does well: it publishes and distrubutes with ease and great scope and it connects people exceedingly well.

This is the utility (as of right now). And despite all the images and rich media and video, we’re still doing one primary thing on computer screens: reading. You’re doing it right now. Websites, email, spreadsheets, documents. All reading.

Human kind has a surprisingly good institutional memory in some regards, but when dealing with the problems of new media and technology, it’s tempting to think that one is the first kid on the block to tackle a particular issue. Tempting though it may be, it’s not always true.

Way back when in 1984, when the original Macintosh was launched by Apple, the designers and developers had a paradigm shift to design. The specifics of moving from a command-line interface to a graphical user interface needed to be figured out.

One of the problems inherent of a “window” on a computer is the possibility that there may be too much content and too many words to fit in an allotted space. This isn’t a particularly new problem after all, it’s the basis of pagination in books and magazines, but the issue took on different characteristics in the computer. On a digital screen, we had what was later labeled an “infinite canvas” by Scott McCloud, unlimited space in every direction that we could do with as we wished. The format and constraints of the physical page were gone, along with the tension of its edges.

The designers of the Macintosh knew this was an issue that had to be solved through the user interface, and devised an ingenius model that’s still being used today. They found a previous solution in the physical world and ported it directly to the digital space: scrolling.

We take scrolling for granted today. It’s like running water or Friends reruns: they’ve always been there and they always will be there. And we like them well enough. But, it is an interesting mental exercise to actually consider scrolling as part of a continuum of solutions in solving the same problem.

Imagine a scroll. Specifically, a physical scroll, like the Dead Sea Scrolls. What do you see? It’s probaby something similar to this:

But actually, the idealized version of a scroll, and the same sort of scroll illustrated in Apple’s diagram, may be a bit off. The formatting is incorrect. It is sideways. The Dead Sea Scrolls are horizontal, not vertical:

A simple Google Image Search will reveal the same sort of pattern. Most of the vertical scrolls are idealized versions, stock illustrations, or clip art, while most photographs of historical scrolls and documents are horizontal in format.

This is an unusual characteristic, and an even odder decision to base a core model for user interaction on a potentially incorrect assumption, especially when one considers the primarily horizontal format of most computer screens.

If we mostly read on the web and computer screens, the analysis of qualities of this format for reproduction becomes essential towards improving readability. Designers do this consistently when choosing paper sizes, margins, and typefaces for physical media, and we should not be scared to question convention in interaction models to improve the ease of reading the materials we are asked to design, so long as we can do so in a way that is better for the user or reader.

One primary area horizontal orientation can improve reader experience is with the flow of the eye. Consider the path the eye takes when reading on a normal, vertically scrolling block of text in a window, versus how the eye behaves reading shorter, smaller segments of text arranged in columns horizontally.

The benefit is in the equilibrium of how the eye moves. With smaller columns placed horizontally, the eye can move left to right to read a line, move down to take in the next, then when finishing a column, can jump to the next and disregard previously read columns.

The amount of horizontal movement required of the eye can be balanced with a reasonable vertical measure (the height of the column). The horizontal orientation also allows for something we take for granted with pagination in books: the ability to disregard and not reread text we’ve already read.

Rereading and losing position, in fact, is a common problem with long, vertical swaths of text. It’s difficult to disregard already read text, and the flow of the eye is not balanced because the implied movement is usually so strongly vertical. The reader is also frequently interrupted by the need to reorient the text by scrolling to produce new paragraphs to read. It’s not torture, but I think the readability is worse than we realize due to our acclimation to the vertical reading environment. We do so much of it, we had to adapt. But that doesn’t mean it’s optimal.

Despite the benefits of horizontal flow, there are challenges. The orientation of content may seem novel to the user and scary at first. There will be a necessary learning curve since the interaction model is not baked into the core operating system of most computers. But, many of these obstacles become trivial when considering the models of many touch screen devices, whose infinite canvases are directionally agnostic.

We may be able to kiss our scrollbars goodbye, but only if the implimentations are seamless and better than the existing paradigm. McCloud says that as new technologies develop, we need to avoid McLuhan’s mistake of porting the shape of the previous technology as the content of the new technology, such as making MP3 players look like boom boxes or page turn-animations in e-readers. (Page turn animations are novel, not useful. They’re a patch fix on a bad reading experience by referencing a good reading experience.)

There are ancient examples of how to improve legibility on an infinite canvas. It’s interesting to think that this problem has transcended formats and spanned thousands of years. But, the issue still remains the same: how can we facilitate the relationship between the reader and their consumption of the content? The format is temporary and vapor. But, regardless, we’re here to read, and always will be.