How People Read

How People Read

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0152-9.ch011


When people try to read technical information, they try to assess the relevance of information as quickly as possible. They set their own reading goals in performing this task and skip the paragraphs or sections they do not consider relevant (Janssen & Neutelings, 2001). This idea is reflected in the Web reading mantra that if a website does not grab a person immediately, they will leave. While the full truth of this mantra can be debated, the rapid reading and evaluation of information must be considered as part of designing for HII to allow people to comprehend the information.
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I can't write without a reader. It's precisely like a kiss–you can't do it alone.—John Cheever

This chapter considers how people read and comprehend information. The white area in Figure 1 shows the area of the HII model relevant to this chapter. More than just reading text, people must comprehend its message for communication to occur. The underlying psychological concepts of how people read can help design teams make clear content decisions and evaluate problematic usability test results of technical information. Often the problem is not the content itself, but that the writing fails to conform to how people read and comprehend information.

Figure 1.

How people read information

The main areas covered in this chapter are:

  • Reading Theory: How people recognize words, how they construct mental propositions, and the construction-integration model of reading.

  • Comprehension: How people comprehend information and the factors which influence it, such as reading speed, coherence, and cohesion.

  • Coherence and Cohesion: How people form connections within a text and the text factors which either support or impede the formation of those connections.

  • Inferences: How people mentally integrate information to make inferences which are not explicitly contained in the text.



When people read, they process information on three levels: readability, understandability, and comprehension.

  • Readability: Readability is how people identify and perceive individual words. It has been the focus of the majority of cognitive psychology’s research into reading. But the other two levels, understandability and comprehension, carry the meaning of the information.

  • Understandability: Understandability is the ability to form the words into a coherent and logical sentence. In other words, the sentence makes logical sense even if it has lost its context. People may not actually know what the sentence means, but do know it is a logical English (or other language) sentence.

  • Comprehension: Comprehension is extracting the intended meaning from the text and being able to relate it to the world (Warren, 1993). As such, comprehension is a higher level than understandability since it requires the sentence information to be understood in a specific context and see the relationships with the information in surrounding sentences.

Current theories of text comprehension (such as Kintsch’s (1988) construction-integration model discussed in this chapter) consider that comprehension is achieved through constructing a multilayered mental representation of the text (Potelle & Rouet, 2003). More specifically, a distinction is made between two levels of representation, which are called the textbase and the situation model.

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