Research December 17, 2020 4 min reading time

First proof: more digital reading pleasure through features in the Immer app

PRESS RELEASE, DECEMBER 9th – Presentation of the first results at Dutch Reading Foundation conference

Could a phone app make people enjoy reading digital books more, making them read more often? That is possible, as research by linguist Roel Willems (Radboud University Nijmegen) and app developer Niels ’t Hooft (Immer) has shown.

Willems and ’t Hooft, together with reading specialist Niels Bakker (Dutch Reading Foundation), will present the first research results on the Immer reading app during the scientific conference of the Dutch Reading Foundation on Thursday 10 December.


Willems, ’t Hooft and Bakker investigate reading behavior, and especially the reading of long, narrative texts. Such so-called literary reading or ‘deep reading’ still mainly happens on paper. Despite the wide range of e-books and e-readers, digital reading of books does not seem to appeal to a large audience. The three want to know whether literary reading on screen (especially on a smartphone) can be made more attractive by overcoming readers’ objections and obstacles with the help of a specially developed app. The study looked at two obstacles identified in digital reading surveys.

Obstacles and solutions

People often miss an overview when reading an e-book; they indicate that they ‘get lost’ in the text. In addition, many felt overwhelmed by the large amount of text on an e-reader screen. A solution has been devised for both obstacles in the Immer app. It contains a position indicator, which indicates on-screen where readers are in the text and how much they still have to read. To make the text less overwhelming, the app offers small portions of text with varying lengths on the screen, so that the screen always looks slightly different (portioning). That allows the reader’s eye to glide past the words in a calmer way.

The experiment

A group of participants was given a literary story to read on a screen. The participants were divided into four groups:

  • Group 1 received a regular e-book text on the screen, without positioning, without portioning
  • Group 2 was shown a positioning ring, but no portioning
  • Group 3 received portioning: text in portions and with varying length
  • Group 4 received both portioning and positioning

All groups then answered the same set of questions. They had to indicate how they rated the story and how they had experienced the reading themselves. Questions were also asked to check whether people had actually read the story. It can be seen that group 1 readers showed the least appreciation for the story. The readers of Group 4, with the most complete app, gave the highest rating.

Averages and ranges (standard error) for reading with portioning (black line) and without portioning (white line). Not / yes = reading without or with position indicator. Participants (188) indicated on a scale how they rated the story, scaled between: found this story: “Very, very bad” (1) – “Very, very good” (7).

Promising results

The first results of research on the effect of the features in the app are promising. Readers appreciate a long literary story more when they are offered the text digitally in small portions of varying length and with a varied page layout. The appreciation for the story increases when the readers can see where and how far they are in the story. Both features together ensure that the reader experiences fewer obstacles and can focus longer on the content of the story.

Further steps towards digital reading

Roel Willems:

This is an interesting initial finding, although there are broad individual differences. We know surprisingly little about how literary reading works on the smartphone, it is an underexposed topic in scientific literature. Many questions remain. Digital reading has for too long been seen as ‘normal’ reading, but on a screen. In future research we want to better map out how digital literary reading can be improved and for whom it works and for whom it doesn’t. We have a decline in reading in the Netherlands and screens are here to stay. I see a great opportunity for reading promotion there.

Niels ’t Hooft:

Reading research was an important source of inspiration for me to start Immer. I saw practical problems in digital reading that I believed software could solve. I think it’s great that we’re coming full circle now as we, with the help of the scientific world, are looking at the exact effect our design innovations have and how we can further improve them. I hope that next year we can test a number of other elements in our app with Radboud and the Dutch Reading Foundation, such as reading with meditative sound and breaking books into reading sessions.

About the researchers

Roel Willems is associate professor at the Center for Language Studies and the Donders Institute at Radboud University Nijmegen. He investigates the psychological processes that play a role in literary reading.

Niels Bakker is a research specialist in reading behavior, affiliated with the Dutch Reading Foundation.

Niels ’t Hooft is an app developer and founder of Immer, a startup that wants to make reading on smartphones easier and more attractive. The most recent version of the Immer app can be downloaded for free.

Attend the conference online?

Congress of the Dutch Reading Foundation: The new reader. Reading in the digital age

December 10th – 9.30am – 4.30pm

With at 13.30 – 14.30 Digital deep reading: how is it possible? Lecture by Niels Bakker, Roel Willems & Niels ’t Hooft. The entire conference can be followed online, admission is free after registration.