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Color Gradients & Better Reading for All

Posted by on September 12th, 2018

Sometimes office conversation here at SCR turns to controversy around typing conventions or punctuation, such as the Oxford Comma or the debate around two spaces after a period. But we’re not looking to start any trouble, so we will avoid those topics! However, accessibility is something that we think about often and not just because we require all of our documents to be 508 accessible.

In the Healthy Aging class that is taught by NNLM coordinators, I have occasionally included a section on web usability and design. For instance, we know that older adults (which means these issues will eventually affect everyone) have difficulty when:

  • Color contrast is low
  • Pages are too cluttered with information
  • Text is smaller than 16px

There are many built-in tools that can assist with those issues. But accessibility isn’t just about responding to losses in vision. It’s about helping those with sensory and attention challenges (legal disclaimer: this blog does not reflect official policy).

Traditional reading is not something that everyone is able to do easily. At least, this is the premise of an Atlantic article from 2016 by James Hamblin: “People who don’t read well in this one particular way tend to fall behind scholastically early in life. They might be told they’re not as bright as other people, or at least come to assume it. They might even be diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia, or a learning disability, or overlooked as academically mediocre.”

One proposed solution? Color gradients in text. Using the Chrome browser plug-in Beeline Reader (this is not an endorsement or paid advertisement; however, this app brought attention to this approach), take a look at the following text from the Atlantic article:

passage in gradient color

The idea is that people have trouble with line to line transitions, sometimes skipping lines before returning to the correct line in an environment where all text is the same color. With color gradients or perhaps other types of formatting, this problem is corrected. The gradients draw the reader to the correct line and subsequently allows them to focus better on the passage.

Here is the same text without the color gradient:

The color gradients might be helpful not just with return sweeps, but simply in
keeping people’s attention – so they’re less likely to dart from tab to tab. Bias
sees an important role for this technology in the era of waning attention spans.
He’s 64 years old and describes himself as a “slow but good reader” who “can
sometimes stay with something for a long time.” But in recent years, he’s
sensed a decline in his attention, and has a feeling that this is a growing
problem. “Can we multitask?” he asks, rhetorically. “The research, more and
more, shows that we all suck at it.”

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