Estimated reading time

2013 April 27

Of all the currently available media, the written format is the only one for which we do not know the exact durations ahead of time. Indeed, we know exactly how long it will take to watch a film or listen to a podcast, but we have no idea how long we’ll have to sit in front of a scientific paper, novel or even a blog post. I think we are missing out on something.

Current solutions and effects of the estimated reading time

The idea of computing an ERT, estimated reading time, is not new. There are a couple of APIs around the internet [1], and various WordPress plug-ins [2] already offering rough estimations. Some reader apps and websites are also implementing their own solutions, as it is the case with Readibility, Instapaper, Readmill, and Longreads. They all seem to be based on the same assumption, which is that an average person reads 200 words per minute.

Accurate or not, basic estimations seem to have some effects on readers already. David Micheal Ross has reported that adding an ERT to his articles has decreased his bounce rate by 13% [10]. Brian Cray, who also added basic ERT to his articles, reported that the time spent on site improved by 13.8%, and that people subscribed to his blog, followed him on Twitter, or retweeted his articles 66.7% more often [11]. Even though in both cases the protocol is lacking scientific rigor, these were interesting experiments that invite for a more in-depth study.

However, not everybody is welcoming the ERT. Some have found offending the idea to present or be presented with an ERT, because in their opinion it would show no respect for the time invested by the writers in their work [3]. I disagree, as most of what I read is not poetry but rather technical books, publications, and blog posts. All I want is to absorb the content that was laid out as words right into my brain. I couldn’t care less how fancy the writing style is.

If I wanted to read Proust or Camus, I would do that on a nice Sunday afternoon and take all the time I wanted, but that’s a totally different story. This question is never asked with other media and art forms. I know that watching the film “Pulp Fiction” will take me exactly 154 minutes, and this doesn’t change anything to the fact that it’s an awesome film and that I will have a great time watching it. Knowing in advance how long an article will take me just helps me with my time management, by allowing me to plan better.

But if it’s purely time that is the concern, then maybe instead of knowing how long some text will take to read we should just try to increase the speed at which we can read.

Reading speed

I have tried many “speed reading” techniques [4], and none of them worked for me. As a matter of fact, I think that speed reading is bullshit. I see reading as a two-way problem. The first possibility is that you are reading something because you want to understand it, and therefore it’s probably a complex thing that requires you to focus and so you have to spend enough time reading it. The second possibility is that you are reading something for entertainment, in which case you are not concerned about time. So either way, reading speed is irrelevant.

Some research has stated that reading on paper was faster than on screen by 10 to 30% [5] [6], although some other research said they were equivalent [7]. These results are interesting but have to be considered with caution. I would argue that their results probably don’t apply anymore, as those publications are starting to be a bit old. Reading speed on screen depends greatly on the quality of the displays, and hardware has improved greatly over the last decade. More recent research is also being pursued by Thierry Baccino et al. at the IUL (Integrative Usage Lab) about the profound changes that the digital format will bring to the process of learning how to read [8] [9].

My main concern with the reading speed is not the way it’s being measured, but simply that it is misleading. People want to read faster because they associate intelligence with reading speed, and most want to feel and appear to be smart. Who wouldn’t want to read books “Will Hunting” style? We are missing the point, because reading is not about being fast, it is about remembering what we have read. I would happily spend twice as long reading any book if I knew there was a guarantee for its content to be committed permanently to my memory.

Content presentation

One of the reasons why we are slow readers is that most of us are unable to focus for long periods of time, and parasite thoughts come along and mess with the current flow of words. Another reason is that we need to spend some time decoding the format. Some information is better represented as a spreadsheet, as an array, or even as a schematic. A picture is worth a thousand words.

For online content, there are really low hanging fruits as to what can be done to improve the reading experience. Apps such as Readibility can transform any page into a format that is more readable, with better font and layout. And this is of prime importance. In “Thinking: Fast and Slow” [12], Kahneman states that experiments have shown that with the use of clearer fonts increases cognitive ease and therefore comprehension of a written content. And this is just for the font, this is not even considering all the layout issues, or all the advertisement banners that our brains need to filter out while we are browsing pages online.

Humans are supposed to have hundreds of years of experience in layout, as this has existed since the first books have been around, and it has been greatly perfected by newspapers thereon. Layout is in fact supposed to be someone’s job, it’s called “layout artist”. The problem is that most non-professional content publishers are completely unaware of layout standards and of what makes a page more readable. It feels like if the transition from paper to digital made us forget everything we learned. Making tools to publish content with valid layout standards automatically, without relying on the authors, would improve the overall experience on the internet for everyone.

Ideas for improving ERT

The assumption used by the current solutions for ERT is the 200 words per minutes for an average person. This is why they all fail in providing valuable information. Most users are not adopting ERT because they cannot make anything valuable from the current implementations.

Films, songs and other finite media have a duration by themselves, and therefore this duration is the sum of factors that are external to us. Reading, on the opposite, depends on internal factors such as how experienced are we as readers, how much expertise do we have with the topic and vocabulary used in the article at hands, or even how tired are we at this moment of the day. Thus, achieving to predict with accuracy how long some text will take to read may require to build one model per reader, or maybe one model per group of similar readers.

Building a prototype for such an improved ERT tool could be made through a browser plug-in. It would require a back-end so users can login, and their reading times for specific pages can be stored. There would be technical and privacy issues, as one would want to be careful with personal pages such as emails and Facebook. Getting people to use this browser plug-in would another problem, although I would argue that a large chunk of the users of productivity apps are early adopters, so it wouldn’t be much of an issue getting the first 1,000 users.

Then the fun comes in. With enough data gathered, it may be possible to prove with high confidence that some layouts or writing styles outperform others for reading time and comprehension, and should therefore be selected as standards. But well, that would be way down along the road.

Anyhow, it’s high time we get some accurate ERTs all over the web! Having the freedom to pick articles based on their ERTs, and also to use ERTs to plan for the reading of long content, would just be awesome. It’s one of those things we don’t know we need, and once it will be implemented we won’t even notice it anymore as it will feel just so natural to have.

Maybe I’ll implement it myself as a hack whenever I have some time, or maybe someone else will do it.


[5] “Reading Online or on Paper: Which is Faster?” by Kurniawan and Zaphiris —
[6] “Reading from paper versus reading from screens” by Dillon, McKnight and Richardson —
[7] “E-Books and the Future of Reading” by Harrison, IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, Volume 20 , Issue 3 (May 2000), pp. 32-39

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