E-books take longer to read than printed books, but resistance remains futile
I’d love to crow over the news that it takes longer to read fiction on a Kindle or iPad than it does in a good ol’ printed book, as reported by CNN and elsewhere. But the whole story smells funny to me, and I don’t think it really means much of anything.
As readers of this blog know, I’m agin’ e-readers and electronic books for a variety of reasons, from the aesthetic (books smell purty) to the nostalgic (books were good enough when I wuz a boy!) to the practical (e-books will kill bookstores, a cultural catastrophe) to the apocalyptic (e-books rewire the brain, making us less human and preparing us for assimilation by the Borg).
Yet, much as I’d like to claim this new study by the “product development consultancy,” Nielsen Norman Group (no relation to the outfit that tries to figure out what TV shows you’re watching), I find the experimental protocols suspect and the conclusions dodgy.
You can find Jakob Nielsen’s own description of his study methodology, results and conclusions at his Alertbox website, but here they are in a nutshell: He took 32 users, all regular readers, and exposed them to stories in printed books, on the Kindle 2, the iPad and a desktop computer.
Five users were burned off in pilot testing, leaving 27 for the main study. Of these, three were discarded for “measurement
flaws,” (whatever that means). Nielsen’s conclusions are based on the experiences of the remaining 24 participants.
Nielsen had his guinea pigs read stories by Ernest Hemingway “because his work is pleasant and engaging to read, and yet not so complicated that it would be above the heads of users.” On average, participants read each story in 17 minutes and 20 seconds — long enough to qualify as “immersive,” or traditional narrative reading.
Participants got “almost all the answers right” on comprehension tests, so all four devices were effective at conveying information. The interesting data — books read faster than e-readers or tablets — sounds important until you see the numbers: Participants were 6.2 percent slower on the iPad than when reading a printed book, and 10.7 percent slower on the Kindle.
BUT: The difference between the Kindle and the iPad –more than 5 percent — is dismissed as statistically insignificant “because of the data’s fairly high variability.” What the heck does that mean?
I’m no good at math, never have been, but even I can see that the 5+ percentage difference between the Kindle and the iPad is almost as great as the 6.2 percent difference between the iPad and a printed book. So if 5+ percent isn’t statistically significant, then why is 6.2 percent? Was there some magic line crossed between 5 and 6?
PC World notes the small size of the study group and asks some interesting questions. For example, would people in their 20s read faster on a screen than older readers, given their greater familiarity rewith electronic devices in general?
Some sources — CNN for example — suggest some people might “shy away from e-readers if further studies prove they effect reading speed.” This overlooks Neilsen’s one truly significant finding: Participants in the study reported greater satisfaction with the Kindle and iPad than with the printed book — even though they reported reading print more relaxing than reading from an e-reader or tablet.
Neilsen’s conclusion: A bright future for e-readers and tablets, which will deliver sharper screens and other refinements in a hurry.
My conclusion: We live in a gadget-loving age, and electronic reading devices will supplant printed books whether it makes any sense or not.