Why does digital still suck for reading?

I love to read.

I read a lot of books, I love a good magazine, and I am really partial to the design of the Weekend Financial Times. It seems like print is still king when it comes to creative layouts that have impact and that are a pleasure to look at and read.

All of these (apart from books) have things like advertising but that doesn’t detract from the reading experience, indeed they can even make the product feel more premium.

Applying the digital model to print, you could imagine an alternate experience:

You pick up a magazine, which is wrapped in a really ugly advert you have to open, and as you rip it open it starts to flap around in your hands as if a mysterious wind has blown into the room. The pages have a weird ratio of content to advertising, and bits of other advertising keep falling out of each fold. The ink smudges, and the paper sometimes tears or columns drop out from the pages. The type looks crude, and sometimes the pages are blank with grey boxes on them. All of the adverts are for baldness cures. As you start reading your magazine the phone rings with a cold caller selling a baldness cure. Suddenly you look out the window and it turns out somebody followed you home from the newsagent where you bought the magazine.

And this is exactly the experience much of the time on the commercial web.

From simply bad and inaccessible typography, to layouts that constantly shift around due to lazy loading and other reasons that are not for the benefit of the reader, to those irritating adverts that stick in the background whilst you try to scroll past the inappropriate advertising, to chatbots insisting on helping you, to surveys…the list goes on. Monstrous experiences being powered by Javascript frameworks that spit out ugly markup and hog your bandwidth, which ultimately have not improved the reading experienced but have actively harmed it.

And it’s not just websites – many apps suffer from similar issues. From unimaginitive Apple News+ formats, to slow loading apps from the likes of The New York Times…

Does it have to be this way?

I get the economic arguments – you need advertising because people don’t think that they should pay for content on the web, and you need to pay your writers (for now!). And often they will put up with a mediocre experience if all that they are reading is mediocre content, designed to entertain them for a few minutes.

But I do think there is room for improvement.

Developers have to take a long hard look at themselves and ask whether current frontend frameworks are benefitting users as much as it is benefitting their ability to work fast. We’ve seen a huge shift to React and loading everything through Javascript, but I just can’t see the benefit for somebody wanting to read and consume content. My needs have not changed in 20 years – I just want to read the content, look at some quality images and video without feeling twitchy.

Many choices being made around advertising and how you load in content are the wrong ones. Go back to the drawing board guys. I can’t offer solutions for how content should be paid for, but I’m happy to pay for my weekend print newspaper, magazines and books for a quality experience.

And we can use a little more imagination and use more CSS to create really great, fast-loading and widely supported layouts and typography.

I think the web is failing people that like reading, and we should stop travelling down the same road. It would be so great to see the experience become a pleasure, where the experience between reading print and digital becomes much closer.



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