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Writing for the Web

Writing content that is accessible, optimized for search, and otherwise informative and easy to read.

How We Read Online

The Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) conducts eyetracking studies to learn how people read the web, and how those patterns change over time. Their results remain remarkably the same for the past 20 years, and that is people don't read online - they scan.

Common Reading Patterns

F-Shaped Pattern

The NNG first identified this pattern in 2006, and it's still a common way for people to approach the content of a website. In countries where people read left to right, they will focus and scan the top part of a page's content from left to right, move down a bit, scan the next part left to right, and then scan down the left side of the page for the remainder, creating the shape of an F. This implies that the first lines of a paragraph get the most attention, and then the first couple words of each subsequent paragraph. Content placed on the right side of the page may be completely missed. 

Eyetracking heatmaps with 3 different examples of the F-pattern for reading web pages

Pinball Pattern

The NNG attributes the pinball pattern to the change in how search engines displayed their results: moving away from a vertical list to a more complex layout featuring different types of results. In this pattern, the person's gaze bounces around to different elements on the page, attracted to areas of the page with stronger stronger contrast and visual weight.

Gazeplot of a Google search result page showing how the user's gaze bounces back and forth between the results list and Google's search result feature blocks.

Additional Patterns

The NNG identifies other scanning patterns, two of which we've noticed doing our own usability testing of LibGuides. Those patterns are:

Layer Cake Pattern

This pattern forms when the user scans the headings in a page and skips the normal text after each heading, creating stripes in the eye tracking plot.

Spotted Pattern 

In the spotted pattern, users skip around the page looking for something specific that stands out - usually a link or a specific word. They will skip chunks of text entirely.

Why is this important?

We can make sure the important points of our content stand out by taking advantage of the ways people naturally engage with the web. This guide talks about making content easier to scan, which is directly related to how people read online. The points where our eyes pause to look are where we want to position our most important content.

Further Reading