How Users Scan: Learning from Eye Tracking Research
Eye-tracking studies can show how users consume content online and help designers create compelling layouts.
You designed a beautiful web page. The color schemes and typography are perfect, the assets are beautiful, and the call-to-actions are intuitively positioned. Given all these things, you can count on users to interact with your page exactly as you intended, right?
According to a study from the Nielsen Norman Group, the average page visit lasts less than a minute, leaving users the ability to read about a quarter of the text on the pages they visit.
As a designer, you must acknowledge that users will not be on your page for long, and during the time they are on your page, they are not likely to read it carefully. Users will scan the page to find exactly what they’re looking for, as quickly as possible, but there are techniques you can employ to use this to your advantage.
In this article, we’ll cite and explain research studies that investigate how users typically scan web pages and discuss techniques to mitigate this behavior.
How Users Scan Web Pages: The “F” Pattern
Several studies have shown that users don’t read very much on web pages. Let’s accept that and aim to understand what they do read and how they read it.
Research has found that there is a primary pattern in which users scan content on web pages; the “F” Pattern.
Below you can see an example of the “F” Pattern.
In 2006, NN/g conducted a study where they recorded how 232 users read thousands of web pages. They found the predominant pattern in which users consumed a web page resembled the letter “F”.
The “F” Pattern study provides us with more confidence that users won’t read much of your web page, but offers a good explanation of what a user is likely to read. This type of user is trying to be most efficient when scanning the page.
They are most likely to scan the first area of visible content, move down and scan the second area of visible content that covers a shorter area, then move down in a vertical motion to scan the rest of the content.
While the “F” Pattern is the most common way in which users scan web pages, this follow-up study by NN/g in 2017 found several other common patterns. It’s important to address each one, so that we are aware of all the common ways users scan.
- Layer-cake Pattern
- When the user scans headings and subheadings and skips the normal text.
- Spotted Pattern
- When the user skips big chunks of text and scanning because they are looking for something specific, such as links, digits, a particular word of a set of words with a shape (like an address or signature.
- Marking Pattern
- When the user keeps their eyes focused in one place as the mouse scrolls or finger swipes the page. This happens more on a mobile device.
- Commitment Pattern
- When the user is fixated on almost everything on the page. If the user is interested in the content, they will read through all of the text in a paragraph or entire page
- Bypassing Pattern
- When the user deliberately skips the first words of the line when multiple lines of text in a list start with the same word(s)
At what point did you stop reading the words “when the user”?
We now understand that users can’t be relied upon to read web pages thoroughly. We can only count on them to scan web pages, and when they do it’s likely to be in an “F” Pattern. There are techniques we can employ to increase the amount users will read, improve how they read it, and overall get them to stay on our page longer.
- Make the top line of your “F” remarkable. It’s the first thing a user will typically see. Make sure the purpose of your page is stated clearly and beautifully.
- Make sure the middle line of your “F” contains the most important points in brief paragraphs (1-3 sentences), if applicable.
- Use whitespace liberally between sections. Users will fatigue quickly if you present them with a wall of text and no breaks.
- Group similar content together and distinguish the content with a visual aid. (e.g. background, border, whitespace, etc.)
Good and Bad Examples
Here are a few examples of bad UI design with respect to readability. We’ll offer our opinion on why it’s good or bad, and you should think about how you might improve it, as a designer.
Example 1: Campaign Website
The image above is based on eye-tracking research on a website that was poorly designed. The red is the locations where the users are looking at the most. This website lacks the use of whitespace and consistent formatting. As you can see, the users have no idea where to look, which shows us an example of the users scanning in the spotted pattern.
Example 2: Reddit
Websites like Reddit have a lot of fixation points, which is difficult for the user to follow along. In this example, you can see that there is barely any hierarchy leaving the user to view the page without a guide and try to absorb all of the information at the same time.
Based on the mitigation techniques we mentioned earlier, here are a few examples of designs that increase the amount users will read and how they read it.
Example 1: Design Shack
You can see in this example from this Design Shack article that the layout follows the “F” Pattern. The navigation, which includes the logo at the highest part of the “F”, followed by the content as the shorter horizontal of content. Notice how there is a great use of whitespace and the content is grouped together. The size of the content draws your eyes into the larger wording in the second paragraph and guides the user to scan down the vertical until they are guided to “find out more”.
Example 2: Dynamic Yield
This is another example of the “F” Pattern, however, this one is different because even though there is content at the top it’s not the first place the user looks. Since the logo and copy on the top line are smaller, the user’s eyes are drawn to the copy in the first section of the page. This site shows good use of whitespace, clear concise content grouped together and the use of bold text in “5x”.
As we can see, while users may not spend a lot of time on websites, we can utilize certain layout and spacing techniques to guide their experience. Studies have shown that the users read in an “F” Pattern, starting at the top and then scanning along the spine. Designers can take advantage of this behavior and craft their designs to mimic this practice.
If you would like to learn more, take the time to read the original NN/g article about “F” patterns and their follow-up study from 2017. While reading, think about how you can best organize your designs to catch a readers attention and where you should place detailed information. Next time you go to a new website, take a moment to see if you default to the “F” pattern or read it in earnest! What do your reading patterns say about a website’s design?