Reading is generally taught in a very specific way. You read from right to left, moving from the top of the page to the bottom. We learn this basic, fundamental method at such a young age that few of us question it. It’s simply the way things are, whether you’re reading a history textbook or the ingredients on the label of a candy bar.
The words have to come in some order, after all, and left-to-right is as good as any. But is that really the way people read, if given the choice? As usual, the answers aren’t as simple as the question. Technology has provided new insights into reading habits, primarily in the form of eyetracking studies. The answers reveal some unexpected truths about how people read, which you can use to improve your website design for your small business in Calgary, and the quality of your content.
Keeping Your Content in Shape
If you had to categorize the shape of most pre-digital text, you’d probably pick a rectangle, like the shape of a book. The main separation would come from punctuation, and spaces between paragraphs.
Even for an avid reader, though, big blocks of text can be tough to negotiate. Eyetracking studies conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group, among others, reveal that most people prefer to read or scan in an “F” shape, which means your digital content shouldn’t be formatted like a page in a book.
- In general, people begin reading a page of online content in the traditional way, from right to left and line-by-line. Those first few lines form the horizontal bar at the top of the F shape. So far, so good.
- Here’s where things get interesting. After reading the first few lines “normally,” most readers switch to a more vertical reading pattern. Scanning accounts for the gap between the two horizontal bars in the F.
- Toward the middle of the content, readers tend to switch briefly back to horizontal reading, before finishing with a vertical flourish. This makes up the second horizontal bar, and the rest of the vertical bar.
Practical Applications of F-Shaped Content
If all this talk about letters and lines has you scratching your head, don’t worry. You know more about its applications than you might think. If you regularly read online, you’ve already seen how the F shape works in action. It’s one of the primary drivers behind the use of subheadings, white space, bullet points, and other familiar features that make digital content easy to scan and read.
- The big, neon-lit takeaway from eyetracking studies is that most readers prefer to scan text, rather than read word-by-word. The difference is stark, as 79 percent of readers scan newly encountered pages while just 16 percent read them in order, according to Nielsen Norman Group.
- The first step toward scan-ready text is a simple one – make it easy to read, in the literal sense. That means choosing text and background colors that contrast well, and avoiding overly ornate fonts.
- How you format your content is the big key. Short paragraphs are better than long ones, and each paragraph should focus on a clear point. When you move from one big idea to another, add a subheading so readers know where you’re going next.
- The F-shape study shows that the first few lines are the most likely to be read in full, so make them count. Use good writing and interesting topics to grab attention, rather than gimmicks.
- Your content needs room to breath, so white space can be a good thing. It keeps the reader from getting overwhelmed, and provides natural breaks between key ideas. Just make sure your spacing is consistent.
Embracing the F-shape concept for web copy has many benefits. The most important thing is that it keeps the reader’s attention on your page. It also allows readers to easily find what they’re looking for, which builds trust and makes them more likely to visit your content when they have questions in the future. When you format your content with the reader in mind, everybody wins.
Emphasize Design has the latest tips on formatting your content effectively, starting with how to use lists and bullets. And don’t forget about images! Our two-part guide to effective image use has you covered, there. We’ve got all the tools you need to get more leads online, no matter the size of your business.