digital reading and cognitive load


A regular reader of this blog knows that I have discussed a few times (perhaps more than a few) the impact of reading on a screen versus hard copy.  There's an excellent article on this topic in the Spring 2014 edition of The Journal of Appellate Practice and Process -  "Writing (and Reading) Appellate Briefs in the Digital Age" by Prof. Mary Beth Beazely.

I won't repeat the learning on this issue previously reviewed in my earlier blog entries.  There's also no point in rehashing the scientific fact that less is absorbed on screen than in hard copy.  Right or wrong, the modern world reads on screen.  We need to learn how to live with it, not just whine.

Here are a few pointers from the article.

A problem with screen reading is you lose your "neuro-spatial connections," which "promote structural comprehension."  In other words, with a hard copy, it's easier to understand how long the whole is, and remember where things are, which, in turn, helps you understand the content better and have it stick.  Without these cues, the text is sort of like George Clooney in Gravity, wandering untethered in space, and hard to absorb.  Interestingly, researchers have found that paper readers maintain a mental image of the physical location of words or information.  There is a tactile relationship with reading paper not there with a tablet, which affects the level of absorption.  (There have been some studies that show taking handwritten notes in a lecture for example, helps the listener get it.  Even if the listener just knits, the use of the hands seems to help him or her grasp and keep what's being communicated.  This point means that the e-document should facilitate marking up — getting a physical engagement with the e-reader – but I'll leave that issue for now.)

To address this spatial problem as best as you can, you need to try to provide spatial clues.  Have page numbers in the document, not just an endless scroll,  It's better to say "Page 1 of 16" instead of just "Page 1."  If you can display a table of contents on the left side of the screen, that's good – so bookmark the e-version you provide.  As a reader, the bigger the screen, the better, so you can display the whole page on a screen, or two if you have a massive screen; or turn the screen vertically to get a whole page on it.  The author recommends that instead of using the usual Roman enumeration (I, then A, then 1, then a) to use scientific enumeration (1.1, 1.2, 2.1. 2.2).    The thought is that if someone is jumping around and lands in a "C," they don't know where they are, while "1.3" shows location within the whole.

It also helps if you use the same term all the time, a key word or phrase, in each section of the document.  Avoid "elegant variation" – the use of synonyms for "mere elegance as opposed to a change in meaning."  Remember, there's a search function, and the reader might be bouncing around the brief looking for that term. 

If you use external links, don't be too profligate.  Every link adds to the reader's cognitive load, eroding their ability to absorb, and inviting them to get off point.

If you can, give the court hard copies along with the electronic version.  Hopefully courts will continue to ask for them, or at least have a budget to print out briefs, because the closer the reading needed, the more the reader needs  to print it on paper to scrutinize it properly.

As I've mentioned before, for headings, don't use ALL CAPS, instead use bold (not italic) – bold is easiest to read.  ALLCAPS was introduced only because lawyers wanted some contrast in their briefs, and typewriters could do this only through the use of capital letters.  For typographical reasons, capitals bleed into each other and are harder to read.

Make the heading a whole sentence, and if you can, one that conveys the writer's position on the issue.

Try to use your key phrase or term in the first sentence of each paragraph.

Roadmap up the ying yang – "There are three reasons why," then enumerate, either with text ("first") or bullets (1. 2.)    

In sum, you need to think hard about structure, and make the brief easily digestible in snippets. 

Good luck!