The F-shape: how readers scan web pages
Most of us are acutely aware that our artfully written and beautifully designed web pages don't actually... get read.
Instead, they’re scanned, and often very quickly.
People search for the keywords and images that interest them. Anything that doesn’t actually feed that interest tends to be rejected almost immediately.
So when I came across a claim that readers also tend to scan web pages in an F-shaped pattern, this was news to me. I did some digging and found this article by Jakob Nielsen. It’s convincing, because it's based on scientifically tracking people’s eye movements.
It seems that pages are read in two horizontal stripes, followed by a vertical stripe. Although the F-shape doesn't apply 100% of the time, the general principle is sound. And it reveals some important points for anyone using social media who works with web pages - which is all of us.
The report says:
- 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 products or vendors, for example. Yes, some people will read all of your sparkling copy, but most won’t.
- The first two paragraphs must state the most important information. Users will probably read this material, though they’ll usually 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 the F-shape. They’ll read the third word on a line much less often than the first two words.
The article concludes: “The biggest determinant for content usability is how users read online — and because people read differently, you have to write differently.”
If you're writing or designing for the web, these insights can make a significant difference as to whether you get your message across. Burying an important point in paragraph six means that it will stay buried.
Of course, if you work in PR, it also means that you can hide bad news at the foot of your web release, and be pretty certain that most readers will never come across it.