I noticed that while reading on medium.com every article has a suggested reading length.

Read time

Reasons this might be good UX include:

  • It adds relevance/timeliness (just as we list author/date of publication...)
  • It attempts to give a transparent/forthcoming experience to potential readers (people may be commuting to work and have 10 minutes left on their trip),
  • When readers are viewing the article page itself, they may - as I do - look at the size of the scrollbar for an indication of article length. This is often erroneous as there may be a bunch of non-article content below the article itself (footers etc).

Is there any formal research on this? Or is it something that's just done for novelty?

It's a responsive-friendly way of communicating content length

Let's assume the design problem is: communicate the length of an article concisely.

First, consider some alternatives:

  • Number of pages was the conventional way to do this in printed media, but for today's responsive website, page size can vary dramatically (mobile phone vs 30 inch desktop monitor), so page size no longer works consistently.
  • Number of words has always been unintuitive for users (e.g. how long is a 38,000 word book?)
  • Page-independent indexing is the way Amazon's Kindle tracks reading progress and book length. It's notoriously confusing to users (e.g. "you are on location 1837 of 20394").
  • Scrollbars are unreliable because they are inconsistently rendered across browsers, and content nowadays is often lazy-loaded so scrollbars may not give a useful indication of article length.
  • File size is obviously not a great candidate for articles meant to be read (as on Medium).

Now, going back to design principles, if the goal is to communicate article length and the concept of physical length is inconsistent in a responsive environment, then what about time? Reading speeds do vary, but at least reading speed is something users clearly understand and can be communicated concisely.

Hence the trend.

That covers the why for time-based indicators. Whether length-indicators are useful to begin with will depend on the specific application.

For Medium.com and other short+longform media sites where article size varies dramatically, it may be quite useful to have an indicator so that users are informed before they click on a link.

I think its mostly option 2:

It attempts to give a transparent/forthcoming experience to potential readers (people may be commuting to work and have 10 minutes left on their trip)

Similar partterns include; displaying length of a video clip or the number of pages in a document. In these examples it makes perfect sense to display this information because its independent from users behaviour and performance and offer users a good reference point from which they can orient their actions. On the other hand, The example you shared is really problematic because it is dependant on user perforanmce and other behaviour that can not be predicted.

The issue is further compounded because reading patterns are not only dependant on user behaviour but also on the type of content, its scope, quality and layout. So, there is a lot of variables that go into predicting a reading speed, most of which can not be efficiently controlled:

helpful IA and effective page layout are key to getting users to read your copy. However, our eyetracking data also detected a third ingredient for converting users from scanners to readers: high-quality writing.

source: Website Reading: It (Sometimes) Does Happen

I am not aware of any research in this particular pattern but do think that though the intentions are good it might be an overkill!

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