What to consider when designing for on-screen reading

Creative Director


In today’s information-rich world there are multiple things competing for the reader’s attention. This has bred the perception that on-screen reading can cause the mind to wander off.

But it’s not quite as simple as that.

The move towards more digital reading presented a change that has potentially impacted behaviours, but the evidence shows wandering off isn’t just due to the digital media format.

It’s also due to the perceived quality of online content and the perception that paper is better suited for “effortful learning”. The research found that users believe the screen is for “fast and shallow reading of short texts such as news, e-mails, and forum notes.”

However, it can be said that if a user’s perception is that screen reading is for fast and shallow reading, then that is the experience they are likely to have.

According to the Evolution of Reading in the Age of Digitisation, “reading long, linear, continuous texts over multiple pages that require a certain amount of concentration” is referred to as ‘deep reading’ and “the reader often experiences better concentration and a greater overview when reading from a printed medium compared to a screen.”

This E-READ research initiative also found that “we tend to overestimate our own reading comprehension when we read on-screen compared to on paper.”

It’s true to say that several factors have an impact, one being the distractions posed by viewing content on a multi-use device. The other, as noted in ‘Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension’, is the screen resolution, backlighting and illuminative effect of LCD screens. These affect the visual processing of text and therefore a reader’s comprehension.

While print reading offers the ability to absorb and ‘deep read’ information, digital reading can outperform the printed copy by offering the ability to quickly and easily navigate to relevant content.

Considering the UX design and improving the reader experience in digital reading can maximise the likelihood of comprehension and absorption of information. Have a look at one of our case studies here to see how we use design to engage the reader.

There are some UX design features to keep in mind when presenting content so that you can improve the digital reading experience. Here is a selection to consider:

  • Offer navigation within the text
  • Make the content printer friendly
  • Include page numbers (decreasing the variation between the digital and print content)
  • Ensure graphical content is accessible
  • Mimic physical interactions; provide annotation, page tagging, highlighting
  • Adopt technology; offer video/audio options to consume longer-form content

The aesthetic of the content is also linked to reader absorption. We’ve got some tips for thinking about the visual:

  • Choose a font that clearly separates each letter; offering symmetry and balance
  • Use bold for emphasis and avoid using italics
  • Ensure the font size matches the font type and offers clarity when reading
  • Consider the line height (between each line) to help the eye/brain decipher letters
  • Consider height between each paragraph; it should be 1.5 times larger than line
  • Structure the content; create sections and subheadings help the reader
  • Visuals help the reader’s comprehension
  • Readers prefer shorter lines of 45-72 characters
  • Consider the mobile layout