Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s dictum that “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” can be re-deployed most helpfully when discussing Reader View, a topic that touches on web page design and browser behaviour. But before we get there, consider this: Saint-Exupéry (whose books The Little Prince and Night Flight / Flight to Arras are examples of brevity - appropriately - and poignancy) was so keen a reader that he was once known to circle his single-seater air force reconnaissance plane above an airfield, delaying landing for an hour so that he could finish reading a novel.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
French writer, poet, and pioneering aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in Toulouse, 1933.

This is a story that reaches us out of a past that is truly another country. Even strapped into a pilot’s seat - albeit as an officer who called most of the shots, reading a novel was something that could be slotted into even the busiest corners of the 1930s and 1940s. Take away the aeroplane and place us in the present day and the level of distraction is of a different order, not less but more. Give us even a short text and present it to us in a web page on-screen and the challenge becomes different again. Surround the content we read with links, snippets, sidebar images, menus and - chief culprit - animated adverts and it is often a miracle that we remain up to the task. Cognitive overload.

There’s irony in all of this because the first web pages were feeble things with near-zero capability for styling. Text was gloriously unencrusted with cruft. As far back as 1993 was when the Mosaic browser unveiled the img tag proposed by Marc Andreessen which enabled the display of images. Until then, the web was text-only.

Progressive enhancements to the capabilities of HTML, to our hardware devices and to the browsers they run now mean that the screens we read from are jam-packed with content, much of it fragmented, scattered round the screen, boxing in a single piece of content. These screens are almost metaphors for our lives. We are as busy as the screens we read. Finding the place and the time to read doesn’t get any easier. The abbreviation TL;DR - for “too long; didn’t read” - is often wheeled out. Was it the writing that was too long or the time that was too short?

Exupéry’s dictum can be re-purposed to remind us that too much has been added to web pages. There are circumstances when we need to take some of that away. It’s as if we need something that can put us in an Exupéry reading-cockpit.

The long-form web page

Many websites recognise this problem of over-crowded pages and go some distance to provide pages that are relatively free from this sort of cruft. A good example is The Guardian’s Long Read section of the on-line paper where long-form journalism is curated, with each article taking up a long page of content from which all sidebar material has been removed. There is a stripped-down version of the site’s masthead, showing a cut-down menu, then a footer of the usual links. The reading of these articles suffers little or no risk of interruption from within the page. The New York Times and the Washington Post websites both offer similar page designs once one has dropped down into content from their crowded front pages.

Many sites provide apps for use on tablets or smartphones where this sort of cruft-removal is even more necessary.

All of these extend a hand to us from Exupéry’s cockpit.

This leaves us with sites that don’t do enough to pare down their designs. How can we deal with them? Lacking adequate design support (or affordances to use Donald Norman’s terminology), we can resort to our browsers to provide a Reader View, some being more successful than others. Here’s a survey of their current offering.

Browser reading mode

Some browsers provide cruft-clearance and font-setting options natively. Others provide it but only through an extension. Locate your preferred browser and see what is available. If your browser isn’t catered for, then look for the functionality you’d like and consider changing your browser (radical, I know!).

Native browser and extension options for Reader View
Browser and platform Native/extension Sidebar removal Serif-sans-serif toggle Font size Page width Comments
Opera for Windows Reader View extension yes yes yes yes Only line height could be improved. Otherwise excellent.
Microsoft Edge for Windows Native Reader View yes no yes no Often fails to activate. Weird line and word spacing. Toolbar disappears too quickly but re-appears with a click. Activates with Ctrl+Shift+R.
Mozilla Firefox for Windows Native Reader View yes yes yes yes Toggle with F9. Perfect. Best of breed.
Chrome for Windows Native Distill mode yes no no yes Available only by tweaking your shortcut to Chrome (see Big effort, small result.
Just Read extension yes yes yes, to pixel yes, to pixel Powerful but fiddly.
Reader view extensions yes yes yes no Two different, nearly identical extensions. One is a port of Firefox Reader View, the other a port of Safari Reader View. Both are excellent.
Opera for Android Nothing native, no extensions. - - - - -
Microsoft Edge on Android Native yes no no no Same as desktop.
Mozilla Firefox on Android Native. yes yes yes no Occasional touch sensitivity issues on the floating text settings toolbar. Otherwise good.
Chrome on Android Native Reader Mode - - - - Requires special configuration. See…. Not tested.
iOS Safari on iPad Native Reader Mode yes yes yes - Nearly faultless. The first thing I believe Apple has ever done right!

(I have highlighted systems which I regard as being of greatest value, taking into account a balance of functionality and ease-of-use.)

It’s astonishing that after maybe two decades of progressive technical progress - the adding in - we are now clamouring for the removal of most of it - the taking away. Perfection lies somewhere along this continuum, and is a personal thing. Happy browsing!