In 2004, when Nick Lum was a college senior, he had an idea for improving on-screen reading. “We made screens as a way of mimicking paper,” he says. “And that makes a lot of sense.” Paper, after all, works great for readability. But Lum wondered whether adding a color gradient could help readers track lines of text more efficiently. It’s expensive to add color to print—but not so to a screen. Lum’s idea became BeeLine Reader, which he built after working as a corporate lawyer. Tests have shown that the tool, which he launched in 2013, helps users read faster and improve comprehension; it also aids people with ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning disabilities. Lum, who’s based in Menlo Park, says that interest in the product has surged, since “everybody’s living 18 inches from the rest of the world.” His company is offering its Chrome extension for free to university students and at a discount to public school districts.
On a silver lining of COVID-19: “People who had difficulty reading on-screen previously were not necessarily being fully accommodated, because they were seen to be a niche group. And now their voices have been joined by a chorus of everyone else who is finding screen fatigue to be a real and meaningful problem.”
On Silicon Valley’s resistance to accessible design: “There’s a sense among designers that—and this may be fading a little bit—‘I want to find just that perfect text size for everyone, and it’s going to look great.’ And the person who’s deciding is 22 years old and lives in Silicon Valley, perfect eyesight, maybe wears some Warby Parkers that don’t actually have prescriptions in them. And that means you’re going to lose accessibility.”
On his favorite feedback from a user: “Someone said, ‘This is the first time I’ve read an entire paragraph uninterrupted.’ I thought, ‘What is that person’s life like? How do you study for a test? How do you read a chapter?’ Knowing we can make that big a difference was awesome.”•