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Can Colored Text Turn You Into an Online Speed-Reader?

A browser extension called BeeLine Reader adds color gradients to paragraphs of text on the web. It's not exactly pretty, but it seems effective at increasing readability.

Remember the "undesign" wars of not-too-long ago? Tools like Instapaper, Pocket, and Readability battled one another to offer users just the right combination of ad-destroying, page-reformatting goodness so that they could read the web in (visual) peace. In the end they weren't (and aren't) all that much different from one another, but now there's a new tool called BeeLine Reader which actually offers a new visual solution to the problem of tough-on-the-eyes web text. And that solution is gradients. Yes, you read that right.

Like the Readability browser extension (whose open-source technology it's actually built upon), BeeLine Reader is a little button that sits in your bookmarks bar. Click it, and the article you're reading gets reformatted into a large, clean column of ad-free text. But with Beeline, the text is also striped with color: The words in each line crossfade from black to red to green to purple to blue and back. This means that the beginning of every line of text is extremely visually distinct from the lines immediately above or below it. As you read, your eye can't help but "snap" to the next line in the paragraph, as automatically as a carriage return on a typewriter.

It may make the Internet look like it's printed in Skittles, but Beeline Reader's gradient design "helps the reader with two tasks: transitioning between lines and staying on the right line," explains Nick Lum, a lawyer who created the software in his spare time. He claims that the tool can increase reading speed between 10% and 30%. "BeeLine uses color in order to take advantage of the way the visual perception system works," Lum explains. "Psychological experiments such as the Stroop test teach that a reader automatically perceives the color of the text that she is reading. As a result, colored text can be used to transmit an extra 'bit' of information [about the reader's position in the text] without adding a cognitive cost."

Lum says he's gotten great feedback about BeeLine from readers with dyslexia or macular degeneration, as well as students, lawyers, and other folks who need to absorb a lot of long text documents quickly. One user wrote that the app was "hideous, but I'll be damned if it didn't allow me to read that page extremely fast." So if you've got a need for speed, BeeLine Reader's appeal is hard to deny. It's so effective that I wouldn't be surprised to see it licensed or baked into other reading apps or browsers as an accessibility feature—especially for mobile designs, where readability difficulties are legion even for people without vision problems. (BeeLine Reader works on phones and tablets, too.) Don't expect candy-colored text to overtake good old black-on-white anytime soon, but that's the beauty of an on-demand tool like BeeLine Reader: It's always there if you need it.

[Try BeeLine Reader here. They just launched a Chrome extension.]