Justified versus ragged right? (take III)

Subject: Justified versus ragged right? (take III)
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L List <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Sean Brierley <sbrierley -at- Accu-Time -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 28 Oct 2008 10:40:06 -0400

Sean Brierley responded to <http://www.stc.org/confproceed/1996/PDFs/
PG230235.PDF>: <<I was surprised to see indenting the first line of a
paragraph increases readability but adding spacing between paragraphs
does not. I have, over the years, settled into block-left alignment
of my work with no indent for the first line and with a double space
between paragraphs, with lines within paragraphs single height.>>

This is precisely the problem with research: it tends to be either so
specific that the results only apply to the test conditions, or so
general that the results don't apply to any specific conditions. As a
contrary finding, I designed a publication about 20 years ago in
which we did a quick usability test with a dozen or so readers who
broadly represented our audience: readers younger than 40
overwhelmingly preferred initial paragraph indents with no spaces,
whereas older readers overwhelmingly preferred no indents and spaces
between paragraphs.

Don't treat this as an authoritative research result: we didn't
control the research carefully, and we didn't test actual reading
speeds or comprehension. I report this result only to provide
evidence for my assertion that statistically significant research
findings do not always translate into practically significant (i.e.,
meaningful) differences. For instance:

<<Probably because I am used to this, I find this plus left-aligned
easier to read>>

And this is broadly true in the research literature that I've read:
experience and familiarity trump small differences in theoretical
superiority every time. For example, I read sans serif text much more
slowly than serif text, but this has nothing to do with the
theoretical legibility advantage of serif over sans serif. It's
purely the result of familiarity -- most of the authors I edit write
in Times New Roman, so I spend many hours per day staring at that
font. Most European readers are more familiar with sans serif type
than most North Americans, and read that type every bit as fast as we
read serif.

<<I am also struck by the fact that little recent research has been
done on readability; indeed, some of the research goes back to the

The paper cited above was written in 1996, so you can imagine the
references are old <g>. There's been a ton of more recent research,
including some studies in the journal _Technical Communication_ (for
example, Jan Spyridakis' group at Univ. Washington? has done some
interesting work), not to mention Colin Wheildon's book (latest
edition, 2005). And I believe that Karen Schriver is working hard on
the sequel to Dynamics in Document Design... reminds me to follow up
with her on the status. <g> You have to be careful with books by
graphic designers such as Robin Williams, because they often do
nothing more than present the author's preferences or hobgoblins,
unsupported by any research.

-- Geoff Hart
ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca / geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com
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RE: Justified versus ragged right: From: Sean Brierley

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