How People Read a Web Page
F-Shape Pattern for Reading Web Content
Eyetracking visualizations show that users often read Web pages in an F-shaped pattern: two
horizontal stripes followed by a vertical stripe.
F for fast. That's how users read your precious content. In a few seconds, their eyes move at
amazing speeds across your website’s words in a pattern that's very different from what you learned
In our new eyetracking study, we recorded how 232 users looked at thousands of Web pages. We found
that users' main reading behavior was fairly consistent across many different sites and tasks. This
dominant reading pattern looks somewhat like an F and has the following three components:
* Users first read in a horizontal movement, usually across the upper part of the content area.
This initial element forms the F's top bar.
* Next, users move down the page a bit and then read across in a second horizontal movement that
typically covers a shorter area than the previous movement. This additional element forms the F's
* Finally, users scan the content's left side in a vertical movement. Sometimes this is a fairly
slow and systematic scan that appears as a solid stripe on an eyetracking heatmap. Other times
users move faster, creating a spottier heatmap. This last element forms the F's stem.
Obviously, users' scan patterns are not always comprised of exactly three parts. Sometimes users
will read across a third part of the content, making the pattern look more like an E than an F.
Other times they'll only read across once, making the pattern look like an inverted L (with the
crossbar at the top). Generally, however, reading patterns roughly resemble an F, though the
distance between the top and lower bar varies.
Three screenshots from Nielsen Norman Group's recent eyetracking study.
Heatmaps from user eyetracking studies of three websites. The areas where users looked the most are
colored red; the yellow areas indicate fewer views, followed by the least-viewed blue areas. Gray
areas didn't attract any fixations.
The above heatmaps show how users read three different types of Web pages:
* an article in the "about us" section of a corporate website (far left),
* a product page on an e-commerce site (center), and
* a search engine results page (SERP; far right).
If you squint and focus on the red (most-viewed) areas, all three heatmaps show the expected F
pattern. Of course, there are some differences. The F viewing pattern is a rough, general shape
rather than a uniform, pixel-perfect behavior.
On the e-commerce page (middle example), the second crossbar of the F is lower than usual because
of the intervening product image. Users also allocated significant fixation time to a box in the
upper right part of the page where the price and "add to cart" button are found.
On the SERP (right example), the second crossbar of the F is longer than the top crossbar, mainly
because the second headline is longer than the first. In this case, both headlines proved equally
interesting to users, though users typically read less of the second area they view on a page.
Implications of the F Pattern
The F pattern's implications for Web design are clear and show the importance of following the
guidelines for writing for the Web instead of repurposing print content:
* 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 vendors. Yes, some people will read more, but most won't.
* The first two paragraphs must state the most important information. There's some hope that users
will actually read this material, though they'll probably read more of the first paragraph than the
* 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 their F-behavior.
They'll read the third word on a line much less often than the first two words.
Detailed Scanning Behaviors
It's fascinating to watch the slow-motion replay of users' eye movements as they read and scan
across a page. Every page has reading issues beyond the dominant F pattern I'm discussing here. For
example, users scan in a different, more directed way when they're looking for prices or other
numbers, and an interesting hot-potato behavior determines how users look at a list of search
engine ads. We also have many findings on how people look at website images.
Many of the detailed findings are presented in our 2 full days of seminars on Writing for the Web
at the Usability Week 2009 conference in Washington DC, San Francisco, London, and Sydney.
The biggest determinant for content usability is how users read online - and because people read
differently, you have to write differently.
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