I’m surprised we don’t see more of this on mobile-optimised websites. Whenever I find myself opening an article I’m interested in, the first thing I want to know before I even start is “How long is this going to take?”. If I’m reading it on a mobile device it means I’m most likely not at a desk or at home where there are fewer time restraints and I therefore want to know if I’m likely to be interrupted before finishing.
To be clear, I’m only referring to the mobile reading experience here because of the following assumptions: firstly, if you’re reading an article on a desktop computer or reasonably-sized laptop, the effort required to scroll to the bottom of an article is lower than on a mobile device, simply because it takes less time (due to scroll speed). It’s easier to get a visual grasp of the size of the article. Secondly, if you’re viewing the article on a mobile device, you’re more likely to be on the move and therefore at the mercy of external influences, such as public transport. Knowing how much time you’ve got is definitely helpful here.
So in the absence of this information, you normally have two options to work it out. Both of them have drawbacks.
- Scroll all the way to the bottom of the article and make an extremely approximate guess
(Pros: None, really. Cons: Inaccurate. Slow. And in the mobile context this is really laborious)
- Scroll part way down the article and, based on the size of active section of the scrollbar, guess how long the article might be
(Pros: Quick(er). Cons: Largely inaccurate)
An imperfect fallback
In the split seconds dedicated to looking for an answer to this, if I don’t immediately see something an estimated reading time, I’ll always go with option 2 – use the size of the scrollbar. Simply because it’s the quickest. The first thing I’ll do is press on the screen (of my iPhone) and move the page just slightly in order to activate the hidden vertical scrollbar. I’ll then look at how large or small the bar is and that in turn gives me some indication of the approximate length of the page. This is hardly an accurate indication of how long the article itself is though. For a start it doesn’t take into account any of the space dedicated to comment sections, related articles or any other extraneous information. It also relies heavily on my brain (never a good thing) to make some kind of assumption that if the active scrollbar area is fairly large, then it’s a relatively short article and the smaller it is, the longer the article. This usually boils down to one of a few imprecise conclusions: It’s pretty short. It’s average length. Or it’s pretty long.
If I know I’ve only got about 10 minutes before I need to get off the bus, I want a more accurate answer.
Not always necessary
I’m not suggesting that every website have a “reading time” indicator at the top of a page. It depends entirely on the type of content the website offers. You don’t need to open up your local Chinese restaurant’s website to be confronted with an estimated reading time of the weekend Dim Sum menu. But for blogs and (in particular) long form content, where you’re more likely to want to immerse yourself in the reading experience, it makes sense to me.
One of the more notable websites that does offer this feature is Medium. Medium has much to offer in the vain of immersive reading. But key for me are the few grey characters in the top right of every article – “4 min”. This feature is well suited to the Medium website as they deal solely in the written word – their primary focus is to engage the user in the article. If you want that user to really focus on the content, telling them how much of their time they’ll need to dedicate to it is a pretty good idea. Their ‘read time’ takes up hardly any space but instantly removes one of the small barriers to me committing to that piece of writing.
So I hope we start to see more estimated reading times on web content, most importantly at the mobile device level. Also, this took you 3 minutes and 39 seconds to read. Probably.