Jakob Nielsen has released a study of how people experience reading on different devices — the iPad, the Kindle, a computer screen, and a paper book.

(If you’ve seen Robert Dubose’s talk about “Legal Writing for the Rewired Brain,” you may remember the striking F-shaped reading pattern, showing how readers’ eyes skipped across a web page. That was Jakob Nielsen’s study.)

Nielsen’s results:

[E]ven the current generation [of e-reader devices] is almost as good as print in formal performance metrics — and actually scores slightly higher in user satisfaction.

The finding that’s grabbing headlines, however, relates to raw reading speed. They note the study’s finding of a slight speed edge to paper books compared to the iPad or Kindle. (( The study did not try to distinguish degrees of reading comprehension or retention. Participants were given a fairly easy quiz, designed just to ensure they had read the pieces. ))

But the buried lede might be that all three of these handheld devices were vastly superior to reading on a computer monitor. The iPad, Kindle, and paper book scored a 5.8, 5.7, and 5.6 (out of 7.0) for user satisfaction; the PC monitor scored a 3.6.

A note for attorneys writing electronic briefs

Nielsen studied “linear, narrative content” (he used Hemingway short stories) “because it’s the primary use case for e-book readers.”

That sounds like the idealized image we might have of a judge sitting down with each brief, starting at page 1 (or page i), and working through to the conclusion.

That’s not how I experience briefs, however, and I suspect it’s not how most judges do, either. Although we write briefs to have a narrative flow, they quickly become a random-access medium. Judges and law clerks need to locate the relevant discussion of a particular issue, case, or piece of evidence. PDF versions are weak in the actual page-flipping, but they have great strengths in internal cross-references and search.

That said, paper briefs still have an indisputable advantage in our ability to “spread them out on a table” so that a reader can quickly compare what all the parties say about an issue.

In theory, the same thing can be accomplished with electronic briefs. But that will take everyone submitting easily searchable PDFs — and judges having a nice, big monitor or two on which to “spread them out.”