Write for Readers Who Consume Web Content in an F-Shaped Pattern

F patternThose of us write copy for the web can get so fixated on keywords  that we don’t often think of how our readers consume our content. It’s good to remind ourselves that readers – unless they are totally committed to as subject – will rarely read an article all the way to the bottom.

We tend to scan for the important points. That’s why bulleted lists do well and so do subheads to break up dense copy. A study about reading patterns also confirmed that your most important content should be included in the first paragraph or two. That’s why the SEO mavens urge you to place your keywords early in your content.

The F-Shape

In a well-publicized study several years ago, Jakob Nielsen with the Nielsen Norman Group (NNG), examined how people read web content. Researchers conducted eyetracking visualizations demonstrating that users often read web pages in an F-shaped pattern: two horizontal stripes followed by a vertical stripe. This dominant reading pattern looks somewhat like an F and has the following three components, according to Nielsen:

  • Users first read in a horizontal movement, usually across the upper part of the content area. This initial element forms the F’s top bar.
  • Next, users move down the page a bit and then read across in a second horizontal movement that typically covers a shorter area than the previous movement. This additional element forms the F’s lower bar.
  • Finally, users scan the content’s left side in a vertical movement. Sometimes this is a fairly slow and systematic scan that appears as a solid stripe on an eyetracking heatmap. Other times users move faster, creating a spottier heatmap. This last element forms the F’s stem.

This is what the F-Shape looks like in the middle illustration:

F-shape reading pattern

Implications of the F Pattern

Quoting from Nielsen’s Alert Box, the F-shaped pattern’s implications for web design are clear and show the importance of following the guidelines for writing for the Web instead of repurposing print content:

  • Users won’t read your text thoroughly in a word-by-word manner. Exhaustive reading is rare, especially when prospective customers are conducting their initial research to compile a shortlist of vendors. Yes, some people will read more, but most won’t.
  • The first two paragraphs must state the most important information. There’s some hope that users will actually read this material, though they’ll probably read more of the first paragraph than the second.
  • Start subheads, paragraphs, and bullet points with information-carrying words that users will notice when scanning down the left side of your content in the final stem of their F-behavior. They’ll read the third word on a line much less often than the first two words.

Nielsen Norman provides design guidelines for websites, intranetsapplications, and mobile interfaces; as well as offering training and consulting services. I’ll be writing about their research and advice about the internet and web design in future posts.

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  1. It’s absolutely correct. The beginning of an article is crucial. If you don’t capture the readers attention there he/she will stop reading. Subheads are also essential to facilitate reading and make readers have a look at what interests them.

    Often wonder why so many people write long articles on the web. Unless you are the New York Times chances of anyone reading them are next to none. Many times I have a feeling it’s simply because they are not able to simplify. Instead they use two paragraphs to explain what could be expressed in two sentences.

    • Catarina — I agree about the importance of subheads. As bloggers we do need to edit ourselves. When I write a post, I try to let it sit overnight and when I read the post a second time it seems to change by itself. I see the extraneous words and phrases. Sometimes we fall in love with our own prose, but not every reader will do the same!

  2. Excellent post, Jeannette – and good food for thought!

    First time i hear the term “F-shape reading” but in my experience, blog posts (and any type of content for that matter) is of crucial importance for both better reader experience and engagement AND search engines pleasure. Many bloggers don’t even realize how much they miss when not formatting their posts ‘properly.’ Yet another proof it is high time for me to write that white paper on blog formatting and all, and release it for free as a freebie for my email newsletter sign-up. 😉

  3. That was super interesting Jeannette. I have always known that people don’t read a whole piece. You can, sometimes, tell by how they comment. How they read and in what fashion is important and can aide in our ability to get our point across, in my case my story. I look forward to the next articles on this subject. 🙂

    • Susan — I think that some people just scan the headline and subheads. Then they read the content that is of most interest to them and skip the rest. That’s hard to do with your posts about cooking. Pretty hard to skip any of the ingredients!

  4. Jeannette- I always thought that people read from right to left then the center. Very interesting the F shape.I agree users won’t read your text thoroughly. I can put up a sale and offer a coupon of good savings. It is all over the check out page and they aren’t used. Most people scan what they want and really don’t look at very much of the what you write or offer.

    When I read a post I read the whole thing because I can’t comment unless I know what is going on. Those headlines and first two paragraphs need to grab me. I can’t tell you how many blogs I visit and think to myself, this is old information and everybody writes about the same thing. I enjoy your blogs because they are informative.

    • Arleen — well maybe how that’s the way you read! I notice that I don’t see much about a subject unless I have a need. For example, when I was in the market for a digital camera all of a sudden I started seeing ads for digital cameras. They were always there but I wasn’t interested. It’s only when I was in the market and ready to buy that I noticed them. That’s why advertisers have to run a steady schedule so they get consumers when they’re ready to buy.

  5. I’ve been giving such matters some though recently and am trying to use more subheads, but it’s a hard habit to break being the bookish type that I am who is rather fond of chunks of unbroken text (even though I know better…) I just love how your posts always seem to come along at just the right time when I’m thinking of trying something 🙂

    • Glad my posts are helpful, Jeri. Unfortunately, most readers don’t have the patience to wade through very long paragraphs. They want their information dished up in short chunks. That’s the new world we live in.

  6. Yassine — That’s why the opening sentence is called the “grabber” or the “hook” because that’s when you need to lasso the reader.

  7. Lorraine — Actually, I think observing the guidelines of the F-Shaped pattern will help readers in getting through long copy. A lot of studies have shown that long copy engages readers more than short copy. Sounds counter-intuitive.

  8. Bonjour Jeannette Paladino!
    I love this post. Really informative and useful for me, a newbie in online business. your advice will help me improve my content blog. Thanks for sharing this post. Hope to read more helpful information from you. Great job!

    • Thanks, Tony. Glad Scott’s advice will help you as you develop your online business. Thanks for stopping by and you’re always welcome back!

  9. Thanks for the reminder about the F-shaped pattern Jeannette. I remember that study but I haven’t seen it addressed in a while.

    When I first started blogging, I didn’t do a lot of formatting. As I progressed, I became aware of the value of adding white space, bullets and (especially) headings. As soon as I started using keyword-rich heading tags, I started noticing that people were spending longer on my pages. I also started to see an increase in organic search traffic. Your tips really do make a difference.

    • Sherryl — Thanks for sharing your experience using keyword-rich heading tags. It is interesting and informative that it kept people on your pages longer. I’ll have to check mind out.