Usability: Are Your Hyperlinks Destroying Your Readers' Brains?

Over the past few weeks, I've been experimenting with a new way of linking in my blog posts. I was prompted to do this after reading a Wired magazine article adapted from academics Nicholas Carr's new book, "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains."

Writes Carr:

(In a 2001 study) one group read (a short story) in a traditional linear-text format; they’d read a passage and click the word next to move ahead. A second group read a version in which they had to click on highlighted words in the text to move ahead. It took the hypertext readers longer to read the document, and they were seven times more likely to say they found it confusing. Another researcher, Erping Zhu, had people read a passage of digital prose but varied the number of links appearing in it. She then gave the readers a multiple-choice quiz and had them write a summary of what they had read. She found that comprehension declined as the number of links increased—whether or not people clicked on them. After all, whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which is itself distracting. ... A 2007 scholarly review of hypertext experiments concluded that jumping between digital documents impedes understanding.

Carr's prose is shocking - "The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it" - and there exists a great debate on the tradeoffs we make for the richness of the Web experience. Wired saw fit to cross-link his article to one by Clay Shirky, praising the ability of the Web to harness our "cognitive surplus" for good. However, I found much of Carr's argument and the research behind it compelling.

I can't clean up the dozens to hundreds of distractions that likely frame this post as you read it, but what I can do is reduce the "switching cost" associated with deciding whether or not to jump to another article each time I use an embedded or "in-line" hypertext link in my writing. As another expert says, "It's sort of irresistible to click them." Research also shows that people on the first link they see, and may be turned off to the original article if that link is disappointing.

As a former full-time professional journalist, I've long been a huge fan of in-line hyperlinks and the incredible world they open up within a piece of writing. However, I'd also like for my writing to be read. It makes sense for me to do what I can to reduce the number of readers leaving a piece of my writing halfway through - it's the reason I, like many others, set up links to open in new tabs and not replace the screen where my piece resides.

There are two strategies for reducing switching costs. One is to provide a hyperlinked reference at the end of the paragraph; the second, to leave references as a footnote.

Some bloggers may be wary of the search engine implications of moving away from in-line hyperlinks, however, by actually citing an article or resource, you are able to provide a more complete description for the link, more context for Google as well as a more complete description for your reader. I'm using the footnote method for now, which gives you a list of links to examine and perhaps share if you like (I've already seen this happen Twitter, which tells me this change in how I blog may be quite a good thing). I also try to link to full pages of articles, because while parsing them out on multiple pages may be good for loading them with sidebar ads, it certainly is not conducive to completing them.

I'm interested in how this new way of blogging works out for me. Sadly, I don't have a research team or a control group, and perhaps the links at the bottom of my pieces are inhibiting feedback as readers jump off to explore other content without leaving comments. What do you think?

Resources:

Wired - Author Nicholas Carr: The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains

Tom Johnson - Embedded Links and Online Reading Accessibility: Whitney Quesenbery and Caroline Jarrett (video post)

Twitter page for Cliff Tyllick, a Web development coordinator specializing in usability and accessibility, who I conversed with on Twitter regarding this topic, and who provided the video link above

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  • published this page in Blog 2010-06-19 11:35:40 -0400

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