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The distinction between a ‘lean forward’ and ‘lean back’ medium apparently began with interactive television. The terms have commonly been used by hand-wavers such as marketing people, media theorists, and futurists. The distinction has very little real scientific basis. There isn’t any clear idea what these terms really mean.

Still, there’s something going on here. Jakob Nielsen, in studies of reading via print versus the web, found major differences between the two. To the question of “How readers read on the web,” Nielsen answers: “They don’t.”

According to Nielsen, “People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.”

There is now a big move to migrate news, magazine, and video content and applications from the print world, the (PC-based) Web, and television to the tablet. But the tablet is a different medium than print, the PC, and television. The ‘lean forward’ and ‘lean back’ distinction seems to be important in understanding how the tablet is different, but we need to go beyond it to better understand the tablet and its differences from other media.

To do this, we need to do two things.

First, we need better language to describe what is happening. ‘Lean forward’ seems to imply paying more attention, or, maybe, just getting closer. ‘Lean back’ has an image of someone relaxing on a couch with beer-in-hand, veging out. But the main ‘lean forward’ media experience, the PC-on-the-web, is more typically someone multitasking so much he is stupider. And ‘lean back’ is supposedly the mode that people read the newspaper in. The terms also seem to imply distance from the medium, although that distance is short for print and long for television, both supposedly ‘lean back’ media.

Leaning back or forward? (copyright Apple)

Second, we need to understand why users go into a particular way of engaging with a medium. It’s not just because that they are using a particular platform, or sitting a certain distance from it. Nielsen has also done studies of readers reading an Ernest Hemingway short story on a PC, Kindle, iPad, and printed paper, obtaining essentially the same reading comprehension on different media. The main differences were that readers in some conditions were slower and that readers hated reading on the PC. If readers actually read when it is a short story, but scan instead of read if they are browsing the Web, then it seems clear that engagement style isn’t just about the platform.

New Language

When we use the terms ‘lean forward’ and ‘lean back’ what we are really talking about is what I call ‘engagement style.’ Readers that are actually reading a story have a different engagement style than readers that are browsing the Web.

I would further suggest that a user browsing the Web on a PC be regarded as having a high activity engagement style. A high activity style is one of switching tasks frequently. This style is associated with relatively low sustained attention.

A user reading a print newspaper, in contrast, would be regarded as having a high absorption engagement style, one of concentrated and long-term sustained attention. The terms ‘high activity’ and ‘high absorption’ would replace the corresponding terms ‘lean forward’ and ‘lean back’ that are used today, because they better describe the experience. These terms also allow for different values for each dimension of engagement style. Reading a newspaper is high absorption but low activity. Web browsing on a PC is high activity but probably something above the lowest level of absorption. Watching television is low activity but perhaps something less than the highest absorption, depending upon the program

Each of these categories might have subcategories. Thus, a high absorption style might be either thoughtful or passive.

‘Passive’ is the couch-potato, beer-in-hand style that is often associated with television. It involves little conscious thought. Users are very relaxed, vegging out. Readers might be reading a formulaic mystery or a police procedural novel, or watching one of the more mindless blockbuster Hollywood movies. There is thinking going on, but it is primarily unconscious, passive absorption of content.

‘Thoughtful’ also takes place in a comfortable, relaxing environment, but conscious thought is involved. Readers might be reading long-form journalism or the sort of novel that results in the reader constantly drawing inferences, like Gravity’s Rainbow. Users are relaxed, but hardly comatose.

There are important differences between these styles that have implications for the design of tools for the tablet. For example, an app designed for a passive style of engagement would provide very minimal, simple, easy-to-use tools. A video player that they just turn on to watch for a long time, or a book reader that they just swipe or press a button to get to the next page. It might have quite sophisticated software underlying it to suggest which programs to watch, and some users might initially be in a high activity style to use these tools, but once a program or reading material was selected, they would go into high absorption style. During this period actual operation of any tool would be very simple.

In contrast, thoughtful readers may well want more tools, although still simple, while they are engaging in the thoughtful style. They may want the capability to easily get the definition of a word or to make the online keyboard come up to make a brief note. They also might want significant tools to help them choose which media to interact with, and might briefly use more complex tools. Once they choose media to interact with, the tools would be very simple and unobtrusive.

An example of the balance between activity and absorption.

Factors that Influence Engagement Style

What causes a person to go into a particular engagement style? Many factors are involved: The user’s intention, the platform, the particular task or application the user has chosen, the distance between user and platform, habit (including skills and setting), and set. Much of what has been seen as a particular style due to the platform or distance is the result of habit, mediated by a practiced skill and/or a particular setting.

Tasks like reading are complex skills. Skills require considerable learning and practice to obtain high levels of performance and fluency. In the early stages, these are highly conscious; in later stages much of the skill becomes unconscious and the user doesn’t necessarily have full conscious control. A user can’t fully adjust his or her reading speed and manner. Instead, users develop modes, and switch from one mode to another. One mode might be for the careful reading of, say, long-form journalism article. Another mode might be use for scanning a print newspaper to decide what story to read. Still another might have been developed for scanning Web pages as part of achieving a particular goal. Users will choose a mode, and they may adjust it slightly, but if they go too far out of the parameters of that mode they will lose fluency and become uncomfortable.

Setting and set also play a role. If a user has spent a lot of time in a particular office sitting on a particular chair with a particular computer, performing multitasking with email and Web browsing with a video in background, the user will get used to that engagement style under these conditions and cues. That user may become very uncomfortable if he or she attempts to concentrate solely on a single task such as reading a long-form article. The user may feel deprived of sufficient stimuli. The user may well print the article out and go elsewhere to read it.

Distance also matters. In designing a reader for the iPad, Craig Mod divided reading distances into three categories. These were: (1) Bed (Close to face): “Reading a novel on your stomach, lying in bed with the iPad propped up on a pillow”; (2) Knee (Medium distance from face): “Sitting on the couch or perhaps the Eurostar on your way to Paris, the iPad on your knee, catching up on Instapaper”; and (3) Breakfast (Far from face): “The iPad, propped up by the Apple case at a comfortable angle, behind your breakfast coffee and bagel, allowing for hands-free news reading as you wipe cream cheese from the corner of your mouth.”

Mod used a relatively small font (and wide margins) for the near-distance  “Bed” case, a larger font for the medium-distance “Knee” case, and a still larger font (and small margins) for the far-distance “Breakfast” case. Distance, and corresponding font sizes, will become part of the setting
for a particular style.

Platforms can also influence an engagement style. A PC has multiple windows and thus invites multitasking and high activity, while most tablets effectively have a single window. The iPad, particularly, has usability guidelines that emphasize simplicity, which is also likely to reduce activity. Print promotes a high absorption style because you can’t do much else while holding a newspaper. Television has in the past promoted a high absorption style, but the phenomenon of people using their PCs and tablets while watching TV is changing that.

Understanding engagement style better will be important in designing user experiences for new media such as tablets. And I hope this article is a good start.

Craig Will

Craig A.Will is now working on the design and development of tablet applications at Cognitive Research & Design Corporation in California.He has previously done research on human-computer interaction, human cognition and neural networks, and has done product development on voice dialing, web browsers, and tourism applications. He has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from the University of California, San Diego.

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