We’ve learned a lot about how users read and interact with websites by studying peoples eye movements as they look at web content. The latest “eye-tracking” study done by Nielsen Norman Group (world leaders in user experience research), concluded paradoxically:
- Users go to websites for information. however
- Users scarcely read anything during an average website visit.
Evidence of this dates back to Nielsen’s world first study of “How Users Read on the Web,” summarized:
“They don’t. People rarely read web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.”
Further reseach has confirmed these findings “on the average web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.” Interestingly, eye-tracking studies also show us exactly how users read web content, and Nielsen’s 2006 study discovered a distinctive reading pattern: “eye-tracking visualizations show that users often read web pages in an F-shaped pattern: two horizontal stripes followed by a vertical stripe.”
Heatmaps from Nielsen’s eye-tracking studies of three websites. Red represents areas most looked at, yellow fewer, and least-viewed in blue. Grey areas didn’t attract any fixations. Nielsen’s studies have proved a vital tool for web designers and content writers alike, providing direction on how to best design and present web content for optimal user engagement.
Here are 5 handy tips that can be drawn from these studies of reading the web:
1. Get Your Content in Early!
Web users spend 80% of their time looking at information above the page fold (the part of the webpage that’s visible when users first land, without scrolling). Although users do scroll, they allocate only 20% of their attention below the fold.
The “F” shape depicted in Nielsen’s studies is no coincidence – with the internet being such a vast source of information, and web visitors being traditionally time-poor, users are making quick decisions on whether a page is worth reading or not.
Thus, they scan the first section of a website, from top left across, to ascertain whether this is the page they are looking for, followed by glancing down the left hand side for important information guidelines.
This highlights the importance of including essential information at the start of your page. Avoid long-winded introductions, and try to get to the point ASAP.
Example: the following table shows the percentage of users who looked at a paragraph relative to its sequential location in the body text in a Nielsen eye-tracking study:
|Position from the
start of the text
|Users who looked at
2. Be Scan-Friendly!
79% of test subjects scanned any new web page they came across; only 16% read the webpage word-by-word. 
As a result, Nielsen suggests web pages should employ scannable text, using tools such as:
- highlighted keywords
- meaningful sub-headings (not “clever” ones)
- bulleted lists
- one idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph)
- the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion
- half the word count (or less) than conventional writing
This powerful example measures the effects of improved web writing – using Nielsen’s particular scale of ‘measured usability.’
|Site Version||Sample Paragraph||Usability Improvement
(relative to control condition)
|Promotional writing (control condition)
using the “marketese” found on many commercial websites
|Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions that draw large crowds of people every year, without fail. In 1996, some of the most popular places were Fort Robinson State Park (355,000 visitors), Scotts Bluff National Monument (132,166), Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum (100,000), Carhenge (86,598), Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (60,002), and Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park (28,446).||0%
with about half the word count as the control condition
|In 1996, six of the best-attended attractions in Nebraska were Fort Robinson State Park, Scotts Bluff National Monument, Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum, Carhenge, Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, and Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park.||58%|
using the same text as the control condition in a layout that facilitated scanning
|Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions that draw large crowds of people every year, without fail. In 1996, some of the most popular places were:
using neutral rather than subjective, boastful, or exaggerated language (otherwise the same as the control condition)
|Nebraska has several attractions. In 1996, some of the most-visited places were Fort Robinson State Park (355,000 visitors), Scotts Bluff National Monument (132,166), Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum (100,000), Carhenge (86,598), Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (60,002), and Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park (28,446).||27%|
using all three improvements in writing style together: concise, scannable, and objective
|In 1996, six of the most-visited places in Nebraska were:
3. Don’t be Too Different!
Users leave a websites after 1 minute and 49 seconds on average, concluding in that time that the website didn’t fulfil their needs. With so little time to convince visitors that you’re website is worthy of their time, you shouldn’t be wasting any time making them struggle with a deviant user interface. Web users rely on consistent, standard website features – with these conventions serving to increase their sense of mastery over a website, improve their ability to perform necessary tasks and ultimately enhance users satisfaction with a website experience.
Examples of standard website features that users look for include:
- A company logo in the top left corner
- A search tab in the top right hand corner
- An “About Us” and “Contact Us” page letting them know whose site they’re on
- No splash pages
- Links that change colour once they’ve been clicked
- A “home” button to return to the homepage
- A site map
- A breadcrumb trial that shows them where they are in the site
The reason why websites should comply with these design standards can be summed up by…
Jakob Nielsen’s Law of the Internet User Experience: users spend most of their time on other websites.
In visiting all these other sites, people become accustomed to the prevailing design standards and conventions. Thus, when users arrive at your site, they assume it will work the same way as other sites. When deviating from these standards, users can become instantly confronted by your site, and often chose to move on to a site they feel more comfortable operating. consider the following two websites, both sell jewellery, but one tried some interesting design techniques as a point of difference, but the result is an agonisingly slow and unfamiliar experience, I trust you will be able to discern which one is which
4. Good Writing Still Matters!
At this stage, I feel it’s necessary to emphasise what is arguably the most important ingredient for website engagement – high quality writing! Whilst so much of Nielsen’s eye-tracking studies conclude users are not traditionally reading content, don’t let this discourage you from quality writing. Nielsen acknowledges that “our eye-tracking data also detected a third ingredient for converting users from scanners to readers: high-quality writing.”
Case and point: whilst all studies lean towards the fact users are only scanning website content – web designers and content writers ultimate goal has to be to attract readers to their content. Converting them from scanners to readers.
Confirmed by Nielsen, “…No real surprise — although we’ve identified 83 detailed guidelines for web content, they really boil down to that [high quality content]. Having guided people to your content, it must be good.” They key is to recognise that ‘quality writing’ for the Web goes far beyond excellent prose. Successful digital content needs to incorporate things we’ve learned about the scanning nature of readers from eye-tracking experiments.
- Include clear and informative headings and sub-headings to catch readers attention;
- Incorporate concise descriptive business taglines early on the page;
- Avoid “marketese” promotional writing style with boastful subjective claims and hyperbole – readers instantly dismiss this as it effects credibility;
- Use outbound hypertext links. Links to other sites show that the authors have done their homework and are not afraid to let readers visit other sites;
- Avoid bla-bla long-winded writing, web users are busy: they want to get straight to the facts.
- Use dot-points and informative lists for scanning ease;
- Start paragraphs, dot points and subheadings with information-carrying words
For further information about digital writing style, check out – Writing Style for Print vs. Web, Nielson, 2006
5. Images Must Contribute!
Nielsen’s eye-tracking studies documented a dramatic gap in how users approach website images:
- Some types of pictures are completely ignored. This is typically the case for big feel-good images that are purely decorative.
- Other types of pictures are treated as important content and scrutinized. Photos of products and real people (as opposed to stock photos of models) often fall into this category.
Nielsen’s study concluded that users pay attention to information-carrying images only. That is, images that are relevant and aid to the content of the page, like photographs of products or customers, diagrams and graphs. Images should also be accompanied by direct descriptions, reference or caption.
Any images that were purely decorative were completely ignored by users. Time-poor web users are extremely quick to judge what essentially requires their attention, and automatically discredit what appears to be unnecessary “fluff.”
Similarly, readers are quick to discredit anything that might resemble advertising, of which the Internet is already over-crowded with. We are bombarded by advertisement on a daily basis, and have subconsciously learned to ignore advertising on websites. Any image that may even look similar to advertising is generally ignored – e.g. flashing coloured images that are attempting to divert attention toward them.
Think of the ways in which you use the internet and consume information on a website, does it bare similarities to the Nielsen study? is the content on your website tailored to make the most of user behaviour? Would love to hear your thoughts, so please comment bellow.