Reading web content

The first thing users see on a website is its layout. Jakob Nielsen explains that they scan through the content, reading in an 'F' shaped manner. This means that the top and left sides of the content pane receive most of their attention. The study further supports the thesis that readers continue to scan, until they find valuable content. Horizontal scanning helps them to derive a meaning, while vertical scanning helps to find relevant content. The process is quick, so if the user isn't immediately satisfied, he goes to another site.

It's important to provide more headings in long texts that act as visual cues and support the reader with vertical scanning. Having white space between paragraphs helps separating ideas and cutting the information into more readable and more digestible pieces. It's clear that chaotic, unorganized content can only confuse people.

Navigation in most web sites is usually located at the top or left. According to the pattern, positioning it there will enhance it's visibility and support the user with meaningful information about the site's structure.

This study is important, because knowing how people read content online could support the designer in positioning the right type of elements on the right place. For example, an important content could go to the top, navigation to the left, while less important can be positioned at the bottom of the page.

In some cultures, reading is from right to left. If you show a photo with dirty laundry on the left, a washing machine in the middle and a clean laundry on the right, the people's first impressions might be that this machine pollutes clothes. So they probably won't immediately understand your intention, let alone buy.