Website readability & attention spans

I have been looking more into website readability, spurred by my recent lecture for Balens Insurance, at the Holistic Health Show. The presentation briefly went over some of the basics of website SEO strategies & I listed readability as one of the foundation blocks of good website design.

It’s pretty well accepted that people viewing the web have a very limited attention span. As a consequence web design has always had to consider providing enough information but never too much, when coming up with page layouts. But the rise of blogging must have had some sort of affect on attention spans, as articles tend to be personally written, about a subject the author knows something about, with the result being quite lengthy (I am thinking I had better keep this blog post short!)

Web viewers skim

Reading more about it, it seems that recent thinking is more that we do take information in, but are very frugal with the way we view. A recent study by investigates reading behaviour in the digital environment by analysing how people’s reading behaviour has changed over the past ten years. Reading Behaviour in Modern Environment

With an increasing amount of time spent reading electronic documents, a screen-based reading behavior is emerging. The screen-based reading behavior is characterized by more time spent on browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, one-time reading, non-linear reading, and reading more selectively, while less time is spent on in-depth reading, and concentrated reading. Decreasing sustained attention is also noted. Annotating and highlighting while reading is a common activity in the printed environment. However, this “traditional” pattern has not yet migrated to the digital environment when people read electronic documents.

That is, when we look at a webpage, we tend to see it not as a whole, but rather as compartmentalized chunks of information. We tend to read in blocks, going directly to items that seem to match what we’re actively looking for.

Eye Tracking

An eye-tracking study conducted by Nielsen revealed an eye-movement pattern that could further support this idea that web users do indeed read in chunks: We swipe our eyes from left to right, then continue on down the page in an F-shaped pattern, skipping a lot of text in between. Pattern For Reading Web Content

Modern reading

What we can do

We can do several things to accommodate these reading patterns. One strategy is to break up long articles into sections so that users can easily skim down the page. This applies to block reading (because blocks of text are denoted by headings) as well as the F-shaped pattern, because we’re attracted to the headings as we move down the page.

  • Before writing a post, consider organizing your thoughts in logical chunks by first outlining what you’ll write.
  • Use simple and concise headings.
  • Use keyword-rich headings to aid skimming, as well as those that use their browser’s search feature

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