Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen has taught us that web page visitors are unlikely to read the content of a website. Instead, they scan. They’re looking for information.
Now he gives us a new wrinkle in the notion of website reading:
When website visitors come across something they’re really interested in, they will stop scanning and start reading.
It makes sense, but Nielsen is not just reporting common sense. He is reporting the results of some intensive research. That’s why he is worth paying attention to. He and his group analyzed 1.5 million eye-tracking fixations, and they found that users focus in on sentences and paragraphs where they can get the information they want, as demonstrated by the illustration here from a zoo’s website.
It’s good that the user could focus her attention on the information of interest and ignore the rest. When we see people read on websites, it’s usually because the site meets two usability goals:
Good information architecture (IA), with clear navigation that allows users to quickly get to a page that’s relevant to their interest. If users are bogged down by slow or misleading navigation, their interest peters out — as does their motivation to read much once they finally arrive on the desired page. Furthermore, each page should be clearly signposted, with a good heading and other design elements that signal that this is indeed the page users need.
Good page layout that quickly guides the eye to the relevant part of the page, utilizing well-written subheads to summarize the information in each segment (as in the zoo example).
Nielsen has more to say about words on a website, but his main conclusions are what they have always been:
- Writers should write concisely.
- The writing should contain the information that viewers are seeking.
- It should be easy to find.
That’s the challenge that modern teachers of writing, particularly journalism instructors, face.
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