image Jakob Nielsen, the Web usability guru, is a hero of mine in many ways.

Bow toward Fremont, California, or wherever he works these days, the next time a struggling e-newspaper iinflicts a horrid full-page ad on you with “Skip this” in tiny type. Those are hate crimes against readers: the stuff Nielsen preaches against. Kudos to him!

Nielsen’s latest e-book-related study, however—comparing reading speeds for the iPad, the Kindle and paper publications—means little in the long term.

He seems to imply as much when he says the results are “promising for the future of e-readers and tablet computers,” even though the paper books have won for now. The iPad speed score with the same subjects was 6.2 percent slower than paper; the Kindle, 10.7 percent. He considers the iPad-Kindle difference to be not that significant statistically, but says that paper is clearly ahead.

While I’m pleased that Jakob Nielsen is stirring up interest in this essential topic, especially at a time when many schools expect textbooks to go electronic, I’d like to raise the following questions:

–Shouldn’t Nielsen’s study have included at least one app like the Stanza program, which allows the use of Aerial Rounded MT Bold on for e-book fans using the iPad? I know: “Testing a single iPad reader let us more easily compare it with the Kindle, which has only one user interface.” But in Nielsen’s place I’d have included the Stanza app, too, or another with some kind of bolding available for all text (not just chapter heads or subheads, for example). Both the Apple iBooks app and the Kindle counterpart for the iPad  this one-swoop boldfacing capability. And believe me, the absence of it slows me down, and probably lots of other users, too Last I knew, Bookeen was offering an embolden feature in its E Ink readers. When, just when, will other companies do the same for both E Ink and LCD screens alike? Better still, how about a way, if possible, for users to vary the weight of the fonts?

–I haven’t tried the newest Kindle DX, in the photo, but isn’t Amazon claiming: “Our graphite Kindle DX uses our all new, improved electronic ink display, with 50% better contrast for the clearest text and sharpest images”? Nielsen’s test used the Kindle 2 instead. Significantly, he himself acknowledges the importance of contrast issue: “Most of the users’ free-form comments were predictable. For example, they disliked that the iPad was so heavy and that the Kindle featured less-crisp gray-on-gray letters.”

–Just why didn’t Nielsen at least have his subjects try the older Kindle DX,  with the 9.7 inch screen rather than the K2’s six-incher; bigger displays mean less page turning. Also keep in mind the delay on an E Ink machine when you turn a page. It’s shorter on the Kindle 2 than on old devices but is still there, one more reason why a large screen reducing the number of turns would help.

Something I loved about the Nielsen study was the finding that on a 1-7 satisfaction scale, “the iPad, the Kindle, and the printed book all scored fairly high at 5.8, 5.7, and 5.6, respectively. The PC, however, scored an abysmal 3.6.” That’s helpful information. Isn’t it interesting how the iPad and Kindle beat the paper book? Alas, even many recreational readers still try to enjoy e-books on PCs with less than optimal ergonomics, and the sooner the industry can get them to switch over to tablets, the higher will be satisfaction with E—and the number of purchases of e-novels and the rest. Lower e-book hardware prices, of course, should help.

A reminder: Reading speed isn’t the same as comprehension—check out comments from Bruce Wilson and Marilyn Byerly.

Related: Paul Biba’s earlier item on the Nielsen study (thanks, Paul, for interrupting your Fourth of July weekend to get your item posted). I was tempted just to write a comment, but usability is topic I couldn’t be more passionate about—hence the above post, in the main part of the blog.

And unrelated: Happy Fourth of July and—for non-U.S. citizens—honorary Fourth of July! July Fourth is also when Project Gutenberg founder Michael Hart digitized his first document, the Declaration of Independence. By the way, July 1 is Dominion Day in Canada, so special if belated best wishes!


  1. Who finishes faster?, rather than who understood the material better?

    What a strange ‘test’ for reading. But it’s also unbelievable to me that an almost 10″ iPad screen was tested against a small 6″ Kindle screen.

    I was reading on my old DX today and coincidentally put the K2 and the DX side by side for various pages of differing content, and each time the DX font and font/background contrast was much more vivid than the K2.

    Trying to figure out why, I saw that the DX default ‘3’ size is larger and wider (fatter) than the K2’s default ‘3’ size.

    The K2 characters are smaller and thinner (less black ink to the screen per character.

    How can people do ‘tests’ like this seriously?

    Your point that one has to take time to turn the page more often (and sometimes lose the train of thought w/ a need to go back one to check) is a good on.

    I don’t even care if it would be faster reading on another e-reader – I care about whether it’d be fatiguing on the eyes, relatively speaking. The K2 is no match for the old DX, so I look fwd to reports on the Graphite DX.

    It’s similar to when I tell the google search-results Preference page to give me 100 results at a time, not the time-draining 10 results at a time.

    – Andrys

  2. Many thanks for your insights, Andrys. Let’s hope that Jakob Nielsen will redo the test with the very latest DX. Couldn’t agree more, obviously, that screen size matters when comparing reading speeds—whether we’re talking about different devices or different media. I’ve emailed JN and asked for his thoughts. Ideally we’ll get them after the holidays if he hasn’t answered during them.


  3. Thanks, David, I think many of us will be interested in his follow-up thoughts.

    Here’s something mentioned quite often in forums. Many of us find we read almost all the articles in a magazine or newspaper subscription now, relative to picking and choosing with the physical newspaper (maybe because of all the effort it takes to find the remainder of an article in a physica newspaper)

    In both there are a lot of ads in between portions of an article, often. But they do need them.

    Or it could be that the e-periodical is always with us. It’s not as if we have to go look for that issue again. The device will usually put us back where we stopped.

    I find that it’s more relaxing than looking for articles in the newspaper, as the table of contents helps.

    The search feature is a HUGE plus, with news stories, as I will often search a name (especially an unknown or foreign one) mentioned earlier in the article (or book) — it’s much quicker to find that way (and context is given, as well as any subsequent pages on which that name appears, letting us read in chron order each appearance of the name) than when scanning the words on a physical page.

    Some people do say they read faster on a smaller screen, though, because there is less facing them at one time so it doesn’t seem overwhelming if they have a thing against length.

    Paragraph and line spacing are important as well.

    – Andrys

  4. Good points, Andrys–though I’ll emphasize again my dislike of utra-intrusive ads in any medium. I agree about varying screen-size preferences, but I think people as a whole will fare better with larger screens, especially if usable with double columns, which iBooks allows.


  5. A couple of things. First, iBooks can certainly do boldface text. Second, Nielsen’s data come from 24 readers. How can that be significant? And how did the test run? Did the same person read the same text on different readers or did different people read the same text on different readers? Either way seems like the results would be skewed. Would love to have more details on that.

  6. Liz, I emphatically agree about the small size of the sample, another flaw.

    On another topic, it’s great news IF iBooks can boldface ALL of the text of a book. But how? I don’t see any fonts that look bold to me—though I could be missing something. What’s the command sequence?

    What I have done, with some public domain books, is to bold the books BEFORE loading them into iBooks. Is that what you’re thinking of? I hope not, because I’d love not to have to mess with pre-iBooks bolding.

    Similarly I hope you weren’t simply referring to reproduction of boldface already in the ePub for, say, titles. Here’s to the ability to bold everything or, better still, control the font weight with a sliding scale!

    Apple could build such a capability into either iBooks or the related settings.

    Meanwhile I’ll tweak the post to make sure all readers know I’m talking about one-swoop bolding of entire books.


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