How people read on the web in 2018

New research has confirmed that readers are using more sophisticated scanning patterns than we’ve given them credit for. But we still need to put in the effort to make sure we’re ‘opening up’ our content by making it as readable and accessible as possible.

Be honest: When was the last time you read an entire web page?

While we wouldn’t dream of skipping pages of a novel and will happily settle down to read a magazine article from start to finish, we don’t tend to treat online content with anywhere near the same reverence.

Because, when it comes to the web, we’re not dedicated readers; we’re time-poor scanners. We pick out individual words and sentences to find the information we’re after as quickly as possible.

Here are some insights into how people really read on the web in 2018 – and what it means for us as content creators.

Busting the ‘F’ pattern myth

You’re probably all familiar with Jakob Nielsen’s research around how users read on the web and the ‘F’ pattern, and with images like this:

f reading pattern eyetracking

Nielsen’s research revealed that, when faced with an article page, users will first read in a horizontal movement (usually across the upper part of the content area), before moving down the page a bit to read across in a second horizontal movement that’s typically shorter than the previous one. Then, finally, users scan the content’s left side in a vertical movement.

But, this research is now 21 years old – a lifetime in digital terms – and has often been misinterpreted.

Though a recent study confirms that the F shaped pattern remains a prominent way of absorbing content, both on desktop and mobile, it actually only occurs when a user is greeted with a page that has little or no formatting, i.e. no bolding, bullet points, subheadings, or similar. And, surely, today, that’s a pretty rare occurrence.

In truth, there are many other common scanning patterns, from the spotted pattern (where users skip big chunks of text while looking for something specific like digits or links) to the marking pattern (where your eyes remain focused on one place as you scroll or swipe up the page).

Saccades and how your brains fill in the gaps

When we do decide to stop scanning and actually read a whole sentence or paragraph online, we’re still not taking in as much as we might think.

It’s not the case that our eyes read one word then the next. In fact, our eyes jump between ‘fixations’.

saccades-and-fixations1

The first fixation is where you read the first few characters of a word; the second gives you more information about the word and any small function words to its right; and the third, which is known as your parafoveal view, tells you where’s best for the next fixation point.

When your eyes jump between these fixation points, it’s called a ‘saccade’ (pronounced sa-kaid).

You only take in information on the fixation, not the saccade. So, your eyes jump all over the place and your brain fills in the gaps by making up the content it expects to see during the jumps. This sometimes means you don’t see what’s actually in front of you.

According to Sarah Richard’s book ‘Content Design’, your eye can skip 30% of the text on a page and your brain will accurately predict the content you miss. And this is irrespective of whether you’re reading Jane Austen or Mail Online.

Sharing without caring

On 4th February 2017, Science Post published this pretty frightening headline: “70% of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting.”

Nearly 46,000 people shared the post – even though, after the intro paragraph, there was just a block of “lorem ipsum” text.

Was this a case of people being impressed by the article’s cleverness, or of life imitating comedy? We’ll never know, but further research seems to indicate that we’re ‘sharing without caring’ more and more…

According to a 2016 study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute, 59% of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked: In other words, it seems like people are retweeting articles they haven’t actually looked at themselves.

Catering to scan readers

So, what does all this this mean for us?

It means we need to make our content worthy of attention by ensuring it’s as accessible as possible.

We can do this by using techniques like:

  • including the most important points within the first two paragraphs on the page
  • using heading and subheadings, bolding the most important words and phrases
  • using lists
  • and, perhaps most importantly, being clear and concise when it comes to the language we use.

As Sarah Richards notes: It’s not dumbing down – it’s opening up.


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