An article in the upcoming issue of Scientific American, The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: Why Paper Still Beats Screens, discusses how – even for people who have grown up with computers, tablets, and smartphones – reading on paper is still the human brain’s favorite and most efficient way to digest, recall, and use information. The ubiquity of digital delivery devices, along with their robust features and long-lived batteries, is actually part of the problem: reading from digital sources is distracting. Digital interfaces require their own level of comprehension – how do the buttons work, where do I touch the screen, how do I move or scroll the text – and this taxes our brains much more than words on a piece of paper. As a result, we are engaged with the device more than we are engaged with the text.

Never before have interface designers, user experience experts, and content creators had to collaborate more than now, to reach an older audience who are experimenting with or have already readily embraced the new technology and to keep up with the “digital natives” whose attention is readily absorbed as much by the object they use to read from as the words on the screen. This presents Web content developers with an enormous and evolving challenge. Companies are recognizing that content is king, especially when it comes to SEO, so they are pumping out information to their constituents to stay one word ahead of their competitors. But the research shows that even high quality content is still not enough to keep users focused and interested and informed; and worse, your own navigation structure and user-friendly interface may be the culprit.

What is paper’s greatest strength? According to the Scientific American article, its simplicity. How can you emulate this simplicity on your Web site? How can you create content that engages, compels, and keeps your users’ attention? I have no scientific survey to back this up, but from years of reading, writing, and editing, I do have some ideas:

  • Content must have absolutely no typos – nothing pulls me out of story faster than a typographical error. Immediately the spell is broken, my trust is violated, and my opinion of the author and the Web site is diminished, sometimes forever.¬† Many organizations say they have no budget or schedule for the editorial process, but they will pay more dearly in the long run for embarrassing, unprofessional content.
  • Content must be grammatically fluid and consistent – it may feel constraining, but consistency shows care. Pick a style guide and stick to it. Doesn’t really matter whether it’s AP, or Chicago, or MLA. Whether you capitalize Web or not, use serial commas or open punctuation, commit to your decision. Mixing multiple styles is sloppy and confusing and will send your user straight to the back button.
  • Content must have cadence – I’ve written about this before. The best advice I ever got from a fellow technical writer was to read my work out loud. If it doesn’t sound right, it doesn’t read right. A sentence that sounds pleasing to the ear appeals to the brain, and the idea that that pleasing sentence represents will have a better chance of engaging your user.

So keep these things in mind as you build your digital products and services. All digital content should get the same careful attention to detail usually accorded printed matter – and should be especially well-crafted to focus the reader.

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