Fighting screen fatigue
Why printing is still important – even in the digital age
Screen Fatigue: How and why today’s workers are embracing the printed page
We are the on-screen generation. With the rise of tablets, e-readers and smart phones – all with increasing screen quality – we’re doing more on our screens than ever before. This is especially true for ‘screenagers’, the younger generation, who have grown up in a screen-based culture of social media and mobile devices. Yet even in today’s digitalised society, paper still plays a major part in how we work. In fact, according to a 2015 survey of over 3,600 European office workers commissioned by Epson, 88% of employees use printers at least daily – and those who do print 21 items on average, which equates to around 83 pages each day1.
Does our reliance on paper in the workplace mean we are all craving a break from staring at a screen, or is there a more scientific explanation behind paper’s longevity? Do we process information on paper differently than on screen? When looking to scan or read quickly, on-screen reading is a good alternative to reading from paper. But it can be seen time and time again, from schools to offices, that people still turn to paper for thoughtful and careful reading.
In the workplace, the most popular printed items are reports or brochures, which employees said make up 16% of all items they print in a typical day2. This can probably be explained by the fact that these items are typically text heavy and are often used to guide decision making processes, requiring a comprehensive understanding of the text. Furthermore, as reports and brochures are often external documents, they are more likely to be edited and treated with extra attention.
Email attachments (15%) and surprisingly emails themselves (14%)3 are also frequently printed. With a continuous stream of email traffic, it is easy to imagine why important emails and attachments that require closer attention are printed off – especially as email is a dominant form of communication in the workplace today. In fact research shows that the number of business emails sent and received per user per day totals a staggering 122 emails in 20154. This figure is expected to grow to an average of 126 messages sent and received per business user per day by the end of 20195.
Furthermore, employees highlighted that they typically print items especially to ‘share/handout’ (53%), ‘read’ (44%) and ‘edit/ annotate’ (41%)6. The last point is emphasised with 61% of employees believing ‘there is more chance of making errors editing an electronic document than a editing a print out’7.
Scientific research, although in its early stages, backs up the ongoing appeal of paper, demonstrating that reading from print results in much higher levels of comprehension, learning, information retention and ease of use, in part down to our subconscious feeling from the brain that enables better understanding of text from a known source, in this case paper.8
This can be partially explained by the reader’s ability to move through text in a non-linear fashion – the opposite of reading in a linear fashion on screen – and being able to flick through pages with ease. On screen technology is currently unable to replicate this tactile experience, even with the advent of flip books on reading devices or flip page magazine PDFs online. Some scientists even go as far as arguing that simply feeling the paper also supports comprehension of texts – known in a 2011 study by Gerlach and Buxmann as “haptic dissonance”, referring quite literally to “grasping something”.9
Several other academic studies (Wastlund, Reinikka, Norlander & Archer) have supported the idea that the brain is under much more stress when reading from a screen, when compared to reading from paper. In fact, studies have shown the brain can function for a much longer period when reading from paper10, with screens draining more of the brain’s resources during the reading experience, making the comprehension of information more difficult.
It could also be said that reading on interactive devices requires more discipline as it fosters distraction. An email may appear while proof reading or we may be tempted to leave the document to browse the internet, which is available in a split second with a click of the mouse or a finger tap. When working on paper, there is less opportunity for distraction and readers are less likely to multi-task. In fact, a survey of college students found that 90% of students said they were likely to multi-task while reading on screen versus only 1% who said they would multitask when working with a hard copy11.
This might be explained by the fact that paper documents are often perceived as being more authoritative and serious compared their digital counterparts, requiring the reader’s full attention. When a 200 word report lands on your desk, the weight and size of the document will likely command more authority than a soft copy of the same document.
In order to be productive, we must determine what works for us as individuals and in which instances working on-screen or off-screen is the best choice. But, in the words of Futurist Jack Uldrich, “every technology has unique and tangible benefits, and paper is no different. Arguably, paper is the greatest instrument ever invented for conveying, sharing and disseminating information”. On that basis, it is safe to say that paper based documents will continue to be vital in terms of helping employees work effectively.
1 FTI Consulting commissioned by Epson, 2015
2 FTI Consulting commissioned by Epson, 2015
3 FTI Consulting commissioned by Epson, 2015
4 The Radicati Group, Inc. Email Statistics Report, 2015-2019
5 The Radicati Group, Inc. Email Statistics Report, 2015-2019
6 FTI Consulting commissioned by Epson, 2015
7 FTI Consulting commissioned by Epson, 2015
9 Gerlach, J., & Buxmann, P. (2011). Investigating the acceptance of electronic books – the impact of haptic dissonance on innovation adoption. ECIS 2011 Proceedings. Paper 141. Retrieved January 5, 2015, from: http://is2.lse.ac.uk/asp/aspecis/20110145.pdf