Non-Profit, Technology

The Readability Consortium + UserTesting

How Adobe, Google, Readability Matters, and the University of Central Florida are creating breakthrough technology that improves reading for everyone
Industry: Non-Profit, Technology
Company Size: Enterprise
Role: Executive, Researcher
Customer Type: B2B, B2C

About The Readability Consortium

Adobe, Readability Matters, the University of Central Florida (UCF), and Google comprise The Readability Consortium, which is housed at UCF and administered by the UCF Research Foundation. The Consortium will find answers, develop new research techniques, build a data set for reading researchers, and inform the creation of advanced software for digital reading.

Illumi 2020 award logo

The Readability Consortium achieved

Validation of technology that increases reading speed by 20 words per minute
Heightened awareness for the potential of greater readability worldwide
Improved plans for better reading functionality across all technological formats

Challenge

According to the United Nations, “617 million children and adolescents are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics.”

The Department of Justice reports that, “Over 70% of inmates in America's prisons cannot read above a fourth-grade level.”

Statistics like these drove Kathy Crowley and Marjorie Jordan to found Readability Matters. The pair formed their non-profit to promote the use of technology and improve reading outcomes. But the problem they face is daunting. Since the printing of Gutenberg’s Bible in the 1450s, humans produce and consume text with a one-size-fits-all approach, whether they read that text on a printed page or a digital screen. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Technology has the raw potential to custom-tailor text in digital formats, to facilitate more reading and better reading. But how would that technology work? And how would people gain access to this breakthrough technology?

Solution

Visionaries across tech (Adobe), non-profit (Readability Matters), and academia (the University of Central Florida or UCF) have joined forces to address the problem. And on February 15th of 2022, they announced the addition of Google to this group—aptly named The Readability Consortium.

Hilary Palmén, Ph.D., User Experience Researcher at Google, recognizes the significance of her company’s addition to the Consortium. “Google joined the Consortium to help people read better. In Google products and beyond, this is about enabling other people and other product developers to develop products that help people read appropriately.”

With the Consortium’s principal research housed at UCF, the group will use psychophysics (the study of relationships between physical stimuli and mental phenomena) and machine intelligence to understand how people of all reading levels, across various forms of typography, can read better with the help of individuated settings.  

As a core portion of this initiative, Adobe and Google work with UserTesting to assess the preferences and behaviors of readers across the world as they review text and navigate through software programs.

Zoya Bylinskii, Ph.D., Research Scientist at Adobe, explains, “UserTesting gives us confidence that we’re solving real problems because we can see and hear where users struggle, and then we can test our ideas and get actionable human insight within an hour–again and again until we know we’ve got it right.” 

Outcome

The early findings are dramatic. Preliminary assessments suggest that individuated reading settings, such as the ability to adjust fonts, font sizes, and spacing, lead to immediate increases of reading rates of more than 25 words per minute on average—regardless of whether the reader is advanced or struggling. 

From Adobe’s early work on the project, the software giant has developed and released Liquid Mode, which enables users of Adobe Reader to customize their settings.

But that’s only the beginning of this journey. The ultimate technological goal of the program is to create a digital token that loads an individual’s highly-specific reading preferences into popular software systems.

According to Consortium Director, Dr. Ben Sawyer, Assistant Professor in UCF’s Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems, “One of the really exciting things about this idea is that we may be able to build a way for people to understand their best format, and put it in their digital pocket, and have it seamlessly show up everywhere they look, exactly the way your glasses work. We want readability technology to be that seamless, to disappear and just let people read the best way that they can.”

With such dramatic aims, The Readability Consortium plans to add further corporate partners whose technological expertise can advance the group’s vision—and ensure that a readability token works seamlessly on the world’s most popular programs.

When intelligent people, focused academics, and tech leaders—all from organizations that care about their users—put their minds together, the notion of a world where everyone can read more easily comes closer to reality.  

“UserTesting plays a key role as we research how to improve readability. We use it to iterate quickly, get actionable human feedback, and gain confidence in our study design decisions before we scale.”
Zoya Bylinskii, Ph.D.
Research Scientist, Creative Intelligence Lab, Adobe