atw: Re: Should we give the users what they want?

  • From: Stuart Burnfield <slb@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: Austechwriter <austechwriter@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 10 Mar 2009 14:49:51 +0900 (WST)

Geoffrey, is this a fair (if brief) summary of your initial discussion? 
- There's a perception or assumption that younger people prefer reading online. 
- This preference will become widespread as older folks retire. 
- A couple of studies show significantly better comprehension of printed text 
compared with the same text read online. 
(Comprehension was measured by asking questions to check understanding of the 
material. ) 
- In some cases poor comprehension would increase the risk of death, injury, 
damage, financial loss, work performance, etc. 
- In these cases, shouldn't the medium that is shown to provide objectively 
better comprehension should be used (in other words, performance trumps 

Laid out this way, the last point seems sensible (if unexceptional). You go on 
to ask if we are measuring comprehension and using it to inform our choice of 
delivery media. This is where I have some quibbles. 

Nearly all of my writing ultimately supports readers who use software to help 
do their work. What matters is whether they can do their tasks successfully and 
how long it takes. I have grave doubts whether comprehension, measured by 
asking questions about the text, is a good proxy for how well and how quickly 
readers could perform tasks with the text in front of them. 

Of course we would expect better comprehension to equal better performance. All 
things being equal, it's hard to imagine that not being the case. But all 
things are not equal. Depending on the subject I might want to use 
illustrations, maybe image maps and animations. The last two are hard to do in 
print--did the comprehension test cover that? Maybe print comprehension is 
better for text versus text, but comprehension of text in print is not as good 
as for text plus graphics online? 

For those of you working in places where understanding *is* the outcome, 
measures of comprehension are useful. I still have my doubts though about how 
you usefully compare online and print--Can I increase the font size? Resize the 
window? Bookmark pages? Link to other publications? Add notes? It seems to me 
you can only do a manageable study by artificially excluding many of the 
advantages of each medium. 

You asked if we are doing anything to "assess the comprehension rating of the 
media" we chose. Not in my case--in my last three contracts I haven't had any 
choice over the media. So far I've never been in a position to dictate the 
delivery medium for the users' own good. 

If I did have the choice, how much weight would I put on print versus online 
comprehensibility? Some, but not much. There are a lot of factors under my 
control that affect comprehension--Do I understand the users, tasks and 
environment? Is the language appropriate? Unambiguous? Clear? Correct? I'd 
worry about these first. 

Geoffrey said: 
> For example, licking and scrolling is considered more distracting 
> than turning a page 

You're not wrong! Talk about your new delivery media... ;^) 


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