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Reading demands more attention

Simplicity saves attention

Attention turns out to be a limited resource. We only have so much to give.

  • When we allow targets of opportunity to swim into view we use up only a little attention.
  • Scanning for a particular topic takes more attention.
  • The process of reading takes a lot of attention.

Having a particular term or topic in mind, anticipating where the target words may appear, we can scan fairly smoothly.

When we spot a likely target, we shift gears, and actually read the word, to confirm that it is related to the topic we are concerned with.

We are, first, a user, and second a reader. More generally, we turn attention to an object first, and only then do we identify its meaning, a much more complicated task.


Attention! (Full chapter from Hot Text in PDF, 670K, or 12 minutes at 56K)

Reading demands more attention

Reading demands a great deal more attention than scanning, because we must pick up the general theme of a passage by skimming for thematic markers, spotting the key words, piecing together an interpretation back in our mind, and then returning to the text to test our evolving idea, refining it as we move forward.

We only have a limited amount of attention to devote to this process. Interestingly, what can strain our capacity for attention is the very act of reading, if the text grows more complex. The simpler the text, the less strain.

When we are reading on-screen, and the effort eats up a lot of our attention, we have little attention left over for navigation or other tasks.

When the text itself grows tangled, our attention may blow a fuse.

Messy text, combined with the poor legibility of characters on-screen, may require more attention than most of us have available. Result: we do not comprehend, think about, or act on the message.

Simplicity, then, helps our readers preserve their fragile attention, and ensures that they can focus on our meaning









Where does your attention go?


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