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Does page design affect the way the brain processes news stories? Yes — and we have experimental lab results that prove it.

Key takeaways

Reader experience can be significantly improved by:

  • Formatting the text of the story into shorter paragraphs.
  • Highlighting important story facts and terms.
  • Clean, uncluttered page design.

Similarly, the following distracting elements accompanying the story can reduce comprehension:

  • Flashy advertisements.
  • Photos and links to unrelated stories.

This wraps up the research I conducted for my RJI Fellowship, which I began 14 months ago, in July 2014. To borrow a phrase from J.R.R. Tolkien, “this tale grew in the telling.”

Quick recap of the past year

I was very interested in how readers’ memory and comprehension could be affected by improving a news story’s presentation, rather than merely improving the words themselves. This led me to Paul Bolls, a professor in the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a specialist in media psychophysiology — the study of how media content affects the brain’s physiology, and the use of those indicators to track how brains actually process content.

I spent the next few months reading, and we jointly dedicated that time to hashing out our basic methodology. I also interviewed more than a dozen editors and designers to ask how they approached questions about designing to maximize comprehension and retention.

Finally, we were ready, and in the spring, we brought 80 news readers from Columbia, Missouri, into the MediaBrain Lab at the university, attached electrodes to their hands and forearms, and asked them each to read online news stories on desktop, tablet and smartphone platforms. The electrodes provided a physiological measure of engagement based on brain activity of the reader.

We specially prepared these stories. Each person was asked to read four stories from a list of eight real news stories we had selected. Each story had been published within the previous few months, and they had been paired according to four news topics. In each pair, we found one that we designated as “brain friendly” — one with a clean page design, with few distracting advertisements and story links in the midst of the text and illustrations of the story. We found another that was “brain unfriendly,” with a much more distracting design, heavy with irrelevant links and ads. Because they were real stories, we could not control for text, but we tried to ensure that the stories in each pair were as close to the other as possible. We also manually removed all references to the publisher’s name or logo from the HTML and JavaScript of the stories.

Here are the stories we used:

Brain friendlyBrain unfriendly

We measured their brain response to each story by recording heart rate and skin conductance, two physiological responses that have been used extensively to measure attention and arousal, which we argue are the actual brain processes behind “reader engagement.” Participants were also asked a series of follow-up questions, querying whether the story was interesting, easy or enjoyable to read; made them want to learn more about the topic; or helped them learn more about the topic. We then spent the entire summer trying to analyze the data.

The results

The first results we were able to determine were from the self-report questionnaire, as I wrote in July: “By statistically significant margins, readers more strongly agreed with each of the above statements for the brain-friendly stories than they did for brain-unfriendly stories.”

It took another two months to finish analyzing the brain data. First, here are three rules of thumb that underpin the study of media psychophysiology:

  • The human brain is a limited capacity processor.
    • Readers more effectively engage with thematically segmented news writing.
  • The human brain is a motivated processor.
    • Readers engage with motivationally relevant news.
  • The human brain is a contextual processor.
    • Readers more effectively engage with semantically related page design.

That is a nutshell encapsulation of the experimental framework we used for this study, which is known as the Limited Capacity Model of Motivated Mediated Message Processing or LC4MP. In effect, the theory states that brain resources are limited, not unlimited, which means that when the brain focuses on one thing it must reduce its focus on other things. Therefore, when a person is motivated to pay attention to something, we can measure the degree to which they are paying attention by measuring the degree that their brain resources are reallocated away from other processes.

To measure cognitive engagement, we can measure the person’s heart rate: because the brain is a limited capacity processor, if heart rate slows, it means that the person is paying more attention. To measure emotional attachment, we can measure their skin conductance: when the body is very emotionally engaged, it produces sweat, which can be detected by measuring changes in the electrical conductance of their skin.

In short, we found strong support for our hypothesis: On brain-friendly stories, readers generally had higher levels of both cognitive and emotional engagement.

A cleaner page design results in more engaged readers

Though we tested the stories on three different devices — tablet, smartphone and desktop — we found no significant main or interaction effects of device on any psychophysiological measures or self-report measures of story perceptions. So, in essence, we found no evidence that reading a story on a different platform in any way changes the effects we found.

Here are graphs for three of the story pairs for which we were able to recover data:

Unfortunately, my basic HTML editing on the pages we prepared proved far too rudimentary, resulting in page errors that surfaced when we had people in the lab, forcing us to throw out some of our data. Moreover, our methodology did not allow us to perfectly control for story content — it is conceivable that better writing correlates with cleaner page design — so while we believe in the directionality of our results, we are unable to offer a direct opinion on its magnitude.

The upshot

We found that people’s brains have much higher engagement with brain-friendly stories. Reader experience is significantly improved by simple things like formatting the text of a story into shorter paragraphs, highlighting important story facts and terms, and having a cleaner, less cluttered page design. However, we were unable to test these individual elements to determine which was most helpful, and we hope that future studies will take on this question.

Whatever the technical drawbacks of the approach we took to story selection and direct HTML editing, and whatever the physical difficulties of collaborating across time zones, we are happy with the results: strong, statistically significant support of an important hypothesis. In digital news, design must be a key consideration. If a story is presented well, readers will enjoy it more and engage with it more deeply; if it is presented poorly, even good writing will have less of an impact.

Good design matters. 

Alex Remington  
   
Institutional fellowship project lead



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