The Horizontal Web and Human Learning: Formatting the Web to Reflect the Way We Read
by DC Griffith
As children, we’re taught to read horizontally from left to right – top to bottom/left to right if you’re Chinese and horizontally right to left if you’re Hebrew. Although most research indicates that the advent of writing and reading styles is merely a matter of cultural preference, the internet has not, until recently, been formatted in a way that reflects how people read.
It stands to reason that individuals would be most comfortable perusing the web in the same manner they are taught to read – in this discussion, from left to right as in most English-speaking countries – yet, until the intuitive design of the iPad, web use has not reflected the way people read.
One study, published in the CUU '03 Proceedings of the 2003 conference on Universal usability highlights how the mismatch between reading style and web page presentation may be responsible for decreased task performance in older adults. Although, younger individuals, those who have been raised on the web, appear to make the transition between reading formats easily, the fact that older adults experience performance issues begs the question…
Should web page formats reflect reading styles, and how does web page navigation affect learning?
The answer may be a resounding “YES!” According to Chadwick-Dias and her peers, reformatting web page behavior to reflect human instinct and behavior improved web-based performance “significantly for both older and younger users.” It’s apparent that there is a correlation between learning, performance, and web page layout.
From birth, humans interact with the world using all five senses. Although, the web will probably never be able to engage our sense of smell or taste, sight, hearing, and yes, even touch, are satisfied by interacting with what we encounter on the internet. In recent years, handheld devices have accommodated our innate desire to touch and play with what we encounter. This tactile behavior is biological, not learned, so it’s crucial to learning and growing.
A paper written by Marie-Claude Lavoie of Concordia University in Quebec, Canada, explores the difference between eLearning (electronic learning) and mLearning (mobile learning). Although mobile learning is elearning, elearning is not necessarily mlearning. For example, elearning can take place on a desktop computer which does not meet the definition of mobile. To date, desktops do not generally allow the user to interact with the device in a tactile manner (using touch).
Desktop computers are now commonplace in most schools. This gives students an advantage that older adults didn’t have – the ability to learn to toggle between traditional book-based reading and internet reading. Yet, we know that, even this advantage does not guarantee peak performance for web users. Lavoie insists that mobile devices, as a learning tool, must keep issues such as usability, portability, ergonomics, quality of service, and adaptivity in mind as they grow to accommodate elearning platforms. Most importantly, Lavoie states:
The increase in access and the flexibility associated with mobile learning will move students from passive to active roles using situated cognition and distributed cognition. MLearning (has the potential) to be a holistic system which would not solely dependent on any specific application; the concepts will be usable in any type of application.
The evidence indicates that a horizontal format for the web may best reflect how people in Western countries read. It’s intuitive, natural. Certainly, there would be an adjustment period as people who are heavy web users become accustomed to the new format, but as handheld devices become more common and UX design encourages user-friendly interfaces, the transition is likely to be less painful than assumed. After all, without the user, the web can’t exist.
Chadwick-Dias, Ann, McNulty, Michelle, and Tullis, Tom (2003). Web usability and age: how design changes can improve performance. CUU '03 Proceedings of the 2003 conference on Universal usability
Lavoie, Marie-Claude (2006). I, MLEARNING: IDENTIFYING DESIGN RECOMMENDATIONS FOR A CONTEXT-AWARE MOBILE LEARNING SYSTEM. Concordia University
 Chadwick-Dias, Ann, McNulty, Michelle, and Tullis, Tom (2003). Web usability and age: how design changes can improve performance. CUU '03 Proceedings of the 2003 conference on Universal usability
 Lavoie, Marie-Claude (2006). I, MLEARNING: IDENTIFYING DESIGN RECOMMENDATIONS FOR A CONTEXT-AWARE MOBILE LEARNING SYSTEM. Concordia University