OPINION: Consumers read websites by scanning them


15 Feb 2014

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Gareth Dunlop, owner of user-experience consultancy Fathom

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The headline runs that people don’t read websites and so we need to make sure their impact lies in breathtaking creative design and rich media content, such as audio and video.

However, the detail beneath the sound bite isn't that users don't read websites, it's that they do read them, but differently.

The reason this is important is because if we take the headline at face value we might be motivated to spend less time thinking about our website's words. However, the truth behind the headline should motivate us to do exactly the opposite, which is to spend more time thinking about our words. Because the nature of how our users read makes our words more important, not less so. On the web we need to publish fewer, better-performing words.

Reading by scanning

Users read in a particular way, they scan read.

They do this because they are in a hurry, they know they don't need to read everything, and what's more, in an increasingly busy and cluttered digital world, they've got really good at it. They arrive on the site with a task in mind and are scan-reading for words which give them a scent that they can complete that task by following those words.

The result of these dynamics is that we've got to write our content for a particular type of reader, a scanner. Scan reading means the initial words in our sentences are particularly important because this is where the user will look. We've also got to trust design patterns and ensure we put adequate thought into the big areas where users will look for their signposts.

And so the words we use for our information architecture, homepage calls-to-action, descriptions provided above the fold and other key elements of content become fundamental to the success of the site.

This view is corroborated by a seminal eye-tracking study conducted by Missouri University of Science and Technology in 2010. It confirms that creating a first impression requires not just getting the visual appeal right, it also means communicating applicability based on the user's insistence that they establish relevancy (or not) as quickly as possible. Consider the areas of a site homepage which commanded the greatest attention from the user:

  • Organisation's logo, 6.48 seconds focused on this area
  • Main navigation menu, 6.44 seconds
  • Site search box, 6.03 seconds
  • Social networking links, 5.95 seconds
  • Main or hero image, 5.94 seconds
  • Open paragraph of written content, 5.59 seconds
  • Website footer, 5.25 seconds

Note that five elements (menu, search, social networking, written content, footer) relate to words, and only two (logo, main image) related to imagery or video. Therefore, your words need at least as much care as your images to reflect your brand and your marketplace offering.

As well as getting the words right, there are some techniques which we find increasingly prevalent in web copywriting, simply because we know we are communicating with scanners, not readers.

  • Write concisely and to the point, with fewer words, less waffly language and no marketing speak
  • Rely on clarity, not persuasion, to get users to act
  • Bullet points and numbered lists are your best friends
  • Subheads, short paragraphs and variation of content types get more users to the end of the content
  • Ensure you provide the crux of your content at the top of the page; more newspaper headline, less Ronnie Corbett joke from the 1980s where he took five minutes to tell a 30-second joke

Your users may not be reading but they are scanning. And this means not that your words are unimportant, but rather that they are more important and that you have fewer of them with which to close the deal. Use them wisely.

Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy which helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include user testing, usability and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Fáilte Ireland, Power NI, Performance Alloys, Ordnance Survey Ireland, and Savile Row. Visit Fathom online.

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