Those 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.
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:
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, intranets, applications, 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.