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Links on the side

A simple solution for including hyperlinks without undermining focus.

This is part of an ongoing series related to Peter Meyers’ project “Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience.” We’ll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead. (Note: This post originally appeared on A New Kind of Book. It’s republished with permission.)

I’ve written previously about the distracting effects of excessive hyperlinks: how lots of “hey, click me” blue-lined text makes it hard to focus on a writer’s own writing. In this post, I want to air out a design idea that accommodates links, but does so in a way that helps readers maintain focus and momentum.

The example prompting this concept is similar to what you probably see online every day (click to enlarge):

Example of web article with way too many links
Example of web article with way too many links (click to enlarge).

Are each of those time-consuming and attention-distracting links truly worth visiting? At a time when focus is a precious commodity, isn’t it odd how often digital documents place exit ramps in front of readers? My idea is simple. Remove the link from the body text and instead use a brief margin note to signal readers that additional info awaits. In sketch form it looks something like:

Link layout alternative: move links into the margins
Links removed from the body text and placed, with brief commentary, in the margin (click to enlarge).

I see three main benefits:

  1. Eliminating hyperlink distraction. I can’t be the only one out there who finds the mere presence of hyperlinks distracting. Even the majority of times when I don’t follow the links, I find myself struggling to ignore the noise of the unknown: What awaits if I follow that link? Why did the author put the link here and not beneath some other phrase? My mind wanders when what I really want is to focus.
  2. Enabling link evaluation. Sometimes all we readers need is a bit more info about what a link points to. Then we can make better decisions about whether the click or tap is worth our time. In the original excerpt I posted, a curious reader can right-click the link to expose the URL — that at least reveals a citation’s source. But is it worth taking the time to do so? And do most readers even know that trick? I think that simply adding a smidgen more info — for example, what I added in my sketch — could help readers quickly judge the value of the target.
  3. Offering the possibility of adding “read later” tools. Most people know about “time-shifting” reading services like Instapaper and Read It Later. They’re great for scooping up worthwhile reads that we don’t have time for during a busy day. I think it might be interesting to implement a similar service in a document-specific way. That is, give readers a quick way to say, in effect, “that linked article looks great; please hang onto it and give it back to me when I’m finished reading this piece.” I didn’t add that feature to the sketch, but doing so would be a relatively simple matter of adding in some kind of “read it later” icon next to each link.

Digital documents — books, web articles, business communications — that help readers focus are the ones that we’re most likely to remember. Those that send us scampering around the Web will be more easily forgotten.

Webcast: Digital Bookmaking Tools Roundup #2 — Back by popular demand, in a second look at Digital Bookmaking Tools, author and book futurist Pete Meyers explores the existing options for creating digital books.

Join us on Thursday, November 10, 2011, at 10 am PT

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