Why do they read?
I’ve spent half a lifetime deconstructing magazine design to make it less artistic and more functional, cogently based on sensible analysis rather than on personal taste (though that remains a component, of course). I’ve been stashing useful quotes for my pontifications, and the following—from Karen Gold in New Scientist (United Kingdom), June 1992—is infinitely the most valuable of them all:
“How readers approach reading depends on their aims. They may need to retain every detail … or they may simply want to know if they can safely skip a bit. To achieve these goals they may use different reading styles: browsing, searching, skimming, scanning, close study, or dipping for occasional help. ...
“Readers prefer a ‘cookbook’ approach to information. They want it broken down into quantities … that they can visualize and manage. …
“When reading technical information, people have a mental accounting system that calculates … the effort required to gain knowledge. If they feel additional information will put too much of a load on their memory or understanding, they simply ignore it. …
“People appear to trade a fall in understanding against the cost of doing something about it. If they feel at the top of a page that this isn’t going to contain anything they need to know, then the cost component of bothering to read it in case they do isn’t worth the effort.”
How do they read?
To help potential readers take in your message, you have to understand them and their interests as intimately as possible. If you want your text to be read accurately, you have to ask three questions:
1. What do your readers know before encountering the information you are giving them here? What is their level of sophistication?
2. What happens during the encounter between what you are presenting to them and how they cotton to it? What is the extent of their comprehension, and what can help or hinder it?
3. What happens after they have read the piece? How can they implement their new-found knowledge?