You’re wrong about short lines. How to improve your typography

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You’re wrong about short lines. How to improve your typography

Ik hou van Typografie! Waarom het belangrijk is voor jouw website.Typography can make or break your site. It should not only look nice, but most importantly it should read well. And thus you are using short lines, right?

Wrong! And I’ll tell you why. I’m using some scientific sources to prove my point, you’ll find the references at the end. A link to the source is present when publicly available.

Why longer lines are actually better

We’re talking about lines here, not sentences. It’s about the amount of characters that fit on one single line before the sentence will continue on the next. A “longer” line is one that holds more characters.

The main argument why the “expert” in favour of less characters per line is wrong resides in the reading speed. The influence of line length on reading speed is confirmed by Dyson en Haselgrove (2001) in “The influence of reading speed and line length on the effectiveness of reading from screen”. 

Earlier research from Duchnicky & Kolers (1983) and Dyson & Kipping (1998) had already shown that longer lines, containing 75 or even 100 characters, are read significantly faster than shorter lines. And more recently “The Effects of Line Length on Reading Online News” by Shaikh (2005) shows again that line length has a significant influence on reading speed. Articles containing lines with 95 words were clearly read faster than articles with 35, 55 and 75 words per line.

Still not convinced? Already in 1999 a test was performed by Youngman and Scharff (1999) with a 12 point font on 10, 15 and 20 cm lines. Which line was read the fastest? Yes, that one.

Comprehension

After establishing that longer sentences are a faster read, let’s have a look at the comprehensibility. Reading well is more important than reading fast. What effect does the length of a line have?

Well… Shorter lines are not easier understood. In fact, the length of a sentence does not influence the comprehension of the reader.  (Dyson & Kipping, 1998; Shaikh, 2005)

If your goal is to provide the reader with a text that he can read efficiently and effectively, the long sentence should be preferred. But why are shorter lines often recommended? The argument is that our eyes are very inefficient when moving to the next line. A shorter distance between the end and start of a line should aid the efficiency, resulting in higher readability.

These researches show that while the first part is true, the second is not. Therefore longer lines have the advantage as they require less switching from start to end.

Preference

Now for the interesting part. Contrary to the advantages as found through scientific research, your reader prefers to read short lines. (Dyson, 2001; Youngman & Scharff, 1999).

This makes the decision between long and short lines an interesting paradox.

Now what?

So your typography starts with shorter sentences

Why? Your first objective is to get the reader interested. Make him or her at ease. So you should address the preferred option, even though it is less efficient. 

But then another factor becomes important. Do you know a patient reader? If it takes too long to read the text: TL;DR. Therefore you should address the need of your reader to read the text efficiently. Use longer lines! Research indicates an optimum length of 100 characters per line for efficient reading.

Use typography to improve the experience

Use your typography to engage your readers. Address their needs by choosing the appropriate amount of characters per line. Good typography is the base for every good design. Microsoft has realised this and applies that to the Metro interface and even Apple’s latest iOS7 has increased the importance of typography at the expense of visual effects.

Would you consider using different line lengths throughout your website? Or would you simply neglect the scientific arguments for longer lines and solely focus on the preference of your reader? Tell me in the comments!

 

References

Duchnicky, J.L. and Kolers, P.A. (1983). Readability of text scrolled on visual display terminals as a function of window size, Human Factors, 25, 683-692.

Dyson, M.C. and Haselgrove, M. (2001), The influence of reading speed and line length on the effectiveness of reading from a screen, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 54, 585-612. (link)

Dyson, M.C. and Kipping, G.J. (1998), The effects of line length and method of movement on patterns of reading from screen, Visible Language, 32, 150-181. (link)

Youngman, M. and Scharff, L. (1998), Text width and margin width influences on readability of GUIs.

Shaikh, A.D. (2005),. The effects of line length on reading online news, Usability News, 7.2 (link)

Shaikh, A. D. and Chaparro, B. S. (2004). A survey of online reading habits of Internet users. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 48th Annual Meeting, 875-879. (link)

Youri van Dijk
Youri van Dijk
Business Intelligence consultant. Msc. International Business met een master gericht op ondernemerschap. Verliest wel zijn haren, maar leert graag nieuwe streken.

6 Comments

  1. chris schreef:

    I came here from a site with short lines (yoast). I have to say, you’re entirely wrong. People don’t like long sentences, especially on the web.

    • Youri van Dijk schreef:

      Hey Chris, thanks for your reply! I did mention there is a preference for shorter lines indeed, but should you really neglect all those scientific sources that show better reading results for longer lines?
      After all, the last two researches (by Shaikh) did focus on online reading behaviour and are quite recent…

  2. SEO4.net schreef:

    Very interesting article. I agree that userfriendly typography will improve our site experience, but we can’t deny that most people got used to short uncomplicated sentences and I doubt that it will change in the future. Short sentences are good for internet texts and there are theories that short sentences are one of the Google’s parameters assessing the quality of the pages.

    • Youri van Dijk schreef:

      Are you maybe referring to Google trying to assess the readability of a text in their valuations? Would you have a source for that? I’m curious. I think you could be very right indeed, but you are referring to sentences there. This is very much different from the line that a sentence is on.
      Personally I have a bad habit of creating very long sentences. I blame my high school for that as they made me translate Cicero in the final year. That guy is terrible! But anyway, long sentences are generally very difficult to understand and I therefore agree that these should be avoided.

  3. Ed Watson schreef:

    Youri… I agree with you – and not just because I personally can tell PHYSICALLY how it takes more work for the eyes to keep skipping down to the next line when using shorter lines, but because it is illogical to disagree with the scientific data.

    The statement “People don’t like” translates to “I don’t like”.

    I ‘ve been building an ecommerce website over the last few weeks. Similar beliefs exist regarding banners. People think ‘slide banners’ give a home page ‘life’. When I looked at these types of banners, I felt irritated by the 3 second (average) peek at information that gave way to ‘another message’ or image.

    A cursory search into the effectiveness of such banners revealed that the research showed these slide deck type banners are worse than useless because they not only fail to deliver one’s intended message, but distract and irritate a person – and like shorter lines – most people do not consciously realize why this is so.

    They read what others have to say about it, which is mostly garbage and repetition.

    Interestingly, commenters debated the use of thumbnail galleries vs single slide deck galleries. Again, another ‘choice’. I prefer the thumbnail gallery because you can quickly choose to see an image rather than have to slide through a bunch of images you don’t want to see.

    At any rate, good article!

    • Youri van Dijk schreef:

      Thanks for the compliment! That’s an interesting point you mention regarding the banners. I think the situation is indeed quite similar to the choice of line length. It would be great if these discussions could be focussed more on actual data than “gut-feeling”.

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