Eye-tracking technology has accumulated much new evidence over recent years of how web users actually read text information. It should come as little surprise that people interact with website text very differently to other forms of media. Website owners need to be aware of this fact in their designs.
The most important difference is that on the web, people generally don’t read; they scan.
With the printed word, the amount of information available is obviously limited to whatever is physically in our hands plus it usually has some kind of cost attached to obtaining it. So people tend to read magazines and newspapers much more intensively.
On the other hand, the web serves up incremental information that is practically unlimited and usually free. The only resource limitation is our own time so it becomes logical in a cost-benefit sense to cherry pick whatever value we think we can glean from a page and then move on to the next one.
In the image to the right, presented by Dries Buytart at the 2008 Drupal Conference, the red and yellow areas of the screen show which parts of this page received most attention. The red stars indicate links that were subsequently clicked.
What we can clearly see are patterns that resemble an “F” with the top left corner getting lots of attention, horizontal “arms” fading out to the right, and vertical bars fading out below for each column.
Other studies such as those by Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group and Anne Holland of Marketing Sherpa confirm similar results.
What important points can be learned from the heat map studies?
Focus your most compelling content in the top left
Visitors are most likely to read your first paragraph so make sure it contains a well crafted conversion message.
Left align your text within blocks
You should try to design your content layout in way that supports the natural “F” eye movement pattern. Text that is center aligned or right aligned is much harder to take in at a glance.
Emphasize headings and bullet points
Users find these condensed representations of what is important on each page much easier to consume. Try to limit bullet lists to no more than 10 items.
Place high meaning words at the beginning of the line
Visitors will scan along this axis looking for key words.
Don’t believe that people are going to read every word on your website
Sure, some people who are especially engaged by your content or people who are desperate for some information might pore over the details, but most visitors won’t.
Provide a search box
Many visitors will rely on a site-wide search box to pin point what they are looking for.
Keep in mind that visitors to your website are usually in a hurry. Help then find the information they need, achieve their goals and move on. Don’t make them hunt for information. Most website visitors won’t be bothered.