Design, iPad + Tablet, Layout

Brain friendly design for news websites

Elements of brain-friendly design

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, distracting elements accompanying the story can reduce comprehension:

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

How do news readers perceive and learn from online news stories? How can designers present stories in ways that improve the reader experience?

In what we believe to be one of the first research studies to demonstrate the impact of online news presentation, we have concrete empirical evidence supporting a simple but important hypothesis: Better-designed stories are better for readers.

The way that designers present stories literally makes it easier for readers to interact with online news and become more informed citizens. This is what 2011-2012 RJI Fellow Paul Bolls refers to as “brain-friendly” journalism.

Bolls and I went into the lab to see if we could prove that better-designed news is better for readers. We believe our study is one of the first to demonstrate the impact of news presentation using a variety of real online news stories from major news sources.

The upshot: our initial results upheld our hypothesis. Here is a description of what we did.

He and I have been working since last fall conducting research to answer these questions. Bolls is an international expert on media psychophysiology at the Missouri School of Journalism. In a nutshell, “psychophysiology” is a field of study that is concerned with the way the brain physically works. In particular, media psychophysiology offers a research method that can be used to conduct experiments on how news audiences interact with — and respond to — different ways of presenting online news stories.

Back in February, I gave a partial description of the methodology of our study:

To test the effectiveness of the presentation of a news story, we wanted to limit the effect of the content — but we also wanted to use real news stories, which meant that in many cases the text would not be the same.

We settled on a strategy of picking six news topics, and then for each topic we would have one presentation that we hypothesized would be “brain-friendly” and one that would be “brain-unfriendly.”

Paul and I strove to pick stories that would be unfamiliar to our lab subjects yet not so controversial as to arouse a strong emotional response (like a political scandal or a terrorist attack) or so abstruse as to be unmemorable. We also tried to make sure that, within each news topic, the two news stories were within a couple days of each other’s publication date, and each taking roughly the same approach to the story.

All of the stories that we chose were about recent science news. We tried to minimize textual differences by choosing articles written around the same date and looking for articles with roughly the same length, but we knew that the text was not a perfectly controlled variable. (It is certainly possible that a publisher with better presentation of stories will also have better-written text.) However, we believed that this method was the best way for us to test actual news stories as they actually appear on the Web.

Brain-friendly design
Brain-friendly design
Brain-unfriendly design
Brain-unfriendly design

We prepared the stories by editing their HTML to remove all references to the name and logo of the publisher. “Brain-friendly” stories had a cleaner design and less intrusive advertising than “brain-unfriendly” stories. (Here is an example of a brain-friendly story, and its brain-unfriendly counterpart.)

Our working hypothesis was that the stories that we identified as “brain-friendly” would be more interesting, easier to read, and ultimately more memorable than stories that we identified as “brain-unfriendly.”

The participants in our study were 99 adults from the Columbia, Missouri, community who indicated that they regularly read online news. Immediately after showing these readers a selection of brain-friendly and brain-unfriendly stories, we asked them a series of questions about the stories they had just read:

  • “This story was interesting to read.”
  • “This story was easy to read.”
  • “This story made me want to find out more about the topic.”
  • “This story was enjoyable to read.”
  • “This story helped me learn more about the topic.”

Readers rated the extent to which they agreed with each statement on a scale of 1 to 9.

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.

In other words, they reported that the brain-friendly versions of the stories were more interesting, easier to read, more enjoyable, made them want to find out more about the topic, and helped them learn more about the topic, compared to the brain-unfriendly versions of the stories.

This is concrete empirical evidence supporting what trained designers intuitively know. (We offer this analysis with apologies to the late philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, who apparently used to say, “If your grandmother knew it, don’t publish it.”) Reader experience is significantly improved by simple things like formatting the text of story into shorter paragraphs, highlighting important story facts and terms, and having a cleaner, less cluttered page design.

Designers can present stories covering complex scientific topics in ways that are easier for readers to digest, more enjoyable, and motivate them to learn more about the topic. This is the role of the designer in producing journalism that promotes an informed citizenry.

Our analysis of the data obtained in our study continues. Soon we will have results to share from the psychophysiological measures that indicate how online news presentation impacts the way stories are actually read.

By Alex Remington

About Zoran Opalic

Professional in design and publishing industry. Conceptualize and orchestrate designs and redesigns that effectively reinforce and build brand images. Proven ability to drive record-high campaign in increasing publication sales and execute successful product launches...


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