E-readers have been the talk of the town for a few years now, from the dowdy but effective Kindle to the gorgeous but flinty iPad. The rates of adoption of these devices and the marketshare they’ve laid claim to have been surprising, and indicate that the e-reader is here to stay.
But is e-reading coming at a price in productivity? Do we lose time when reading electronically, even on devices made for reading?
The iPad measured at 6.2% lower reading speed than the printed book, whereas the Kindle measured at 10.7% slower than print. However, the difference between the two devices was not statistically significant because of the data’s fairly high variability.
Hallelujah, the printers shout! Finally, proof that good old paper trumps these newfangled electronic reading devices. It’s faster, after all. That’s got to be of huge significance in a world looking for more productivity from its people.
Um, two things before you pop the bubbly . . .
First, note the internal caution Nielsen puts on the findings — not statistically significant. Why? Because of the data’s “fairly high variability.”
But more importantly, reading quickly isn’t the same as usability. And this is a crucial difference, it turns out.
Devices like the iPad and the Kindle are usable for many different things. A Kindle can be used to read newspapers, books, blogs, and personal documents. An iPad can be used to browse the Web, read email, and many other things.
A book, meanwhile, can really only be used for reading and personal note-taking. Most importantly, a book can only be used for reading the book that’s printed on its pages. This is a vital limitation to books which devastates their usability.
Tony Bradley makes this point well in a post at MacWorld, in which he begins:
While the study seems to suggest that tablet reading devices are inferior to printed books for consuming the written word, it does not account for the convenience and overall higher reading volume made possible by devices like the iPad.
Carrying an iPad or Kindle, I can read many things in many formats, all on the same device. I may read marginally more slowly for extended passages, but I’ll probably do more reading overall on one of these devices, especially if I’m traveling, busy, or shifting settings. Having recently spent a vacation outside the US, the Kindle’s international delivery of books allowed me to purchase two new books while traveling — books I never would have found locally. I read more because of this. I could acquire these books without adding to my luggage. I paid less than for physical books. Does the fact upset me that, on average, I might read 100 e-pages while you read 110 in print? Good luck keeping up with me if I’m reading while you’re out shopping in a foreign country for an English-language book — or waiting for your printed book to ship.
Reading speed is different than productivity.
And Nielsen’s study begs the question, Is slower reading such a bad thing? Is skidding across the words what we want to do? Is speed-reading really the goal of reading extended passages?
A friend of mine years ago insisted that he didn’t proceed beyond a sentence until he was sure he understood it. He read slowly, savoring each idea. And he was awfully smart. When I’m in a particularly dense book, I think of him, and I slow down.
Is reading really something we want to turn into a hot-dog eating contest?
I think not.
So, while the study has some limited interest, let’s remember that the goal isn’t the number of words consumed, but the quality of the ideas transmitted and the fidelity with which they’re received.