1 October 1997 was momentous in website history. It was the day usability guru Jakob Nielsen conducted the world’s first ‘eyetracking’ study of how users read on the web. (Eyetracking studies had been used before, but not for online reading.)
Nielsen’s research changed the way we think about websites.
Jakob Nielsen is a Californian-based Danish usability expert who the Financial Times called ‘perhaps the best-known design and usability guru on the Internet’. His company, Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g), conducts scientific studies on how people use websites and related communications channels, from email newsletters to Kindle. Nielsen terms it ‘my fight for human mastery over technology’.
The 1997 article, ‘How Users Read on the Web’, began with these momentous words:
How Users Read on the Web
by Jakob Nielsen on 1 October 1 1997
Summary: They don’t. People rarely read web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.
In other words, do not confuse writing for the webs with writing for print.
The full report (available from NN/g) offers no fewer than 83 recommendations for web writing and content layout, with 102 detailed findings about how people read on the web.
Why are these findings momentous?
Once we recognise that we read printed material but scan the web, our whole way of writing changes. To keep our readers’ attention we are forced to swap our elegant, complex paragraphs for bite-sized chunks, headings and bulleted lists.
Similarly, when we learn that we read more slowly online, because reading computer screens is tiring on the eyes, we are forced to shorten sentences and paragraphs.
Nielsen also discovered that users scan websites in a particular order, known as the ‘F-pattern’.
In his 2006 article, ‘F-Shaped Pattern For Reading Web Content’, Nielsen conducted an eyetracking study, using ‘heatmaps’. This showed that users’ dominant reading pattern is close to an ‘F’ shape.
A user’s gaze starts with the first horizontal movement at the top of the F, continues with the second horizontal movement and finally scans the left side in a vertical movement. In other words, we don’t read in a linear fashion as for print – we jump around a page.
The red areas are where users looked most; yellow represents fewer views; blue is the least viewed area; grey areas weren’t viewed at all.
This report reinforced earlier findings, with the clear message for web designers to put the most important information where users scan first. Write more like a journalist with an ‘inverted pyramid style’.
How little do users read?
In May 2008, Nielsen’s report ‘How Little do Users Read?’ developed a mathematical formula to quantify how much people read online. His study showed that users read only 28% of the words on an average page, with 20% more likely.
Your web visitor profile
Nielsen developed a clear web visitor profile as a result of all his studies.
Web visitors are impatient and task oriented – Nielsen calls it ‘solution-hunting behaviour’. They have a short attention span and ‘forage’ for information. Web content therefore needs to meet users’ needs. As Nielsen puts it, we’re ‘writing for selfish readers’.
So, bin the verbosity, focus on your users and make your content actionable.
Only by understanding how users engage with your website content – rather than how you would like them to engage with it – will you be able to meet their needs.
So, thank you to Jakob Nielsen and his team at NN/g for leading the way in making websites usable. It is worth checking out his archived articles about writing for the web.
Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir
Jakob Nielsen and Hoa Loranger
Jakob Nielsen and Raluca Budiu