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4 Screen Reading Styles People Use When Scouring for Content Online

According to an eye-tracking research conducted at Missouri University of Science and Technology, it takes users less than two-tenths of a second to form a first impression when reading content online. Researchers found that an average digital audience spends about 2.6 seconds scanning an online page before focusing on a particular section and spends an average of 180 milliseconds “fixating,” on one particular section before moving on. These facts command digital publishers to not just create a digital project but carefully plan and develop strategy for designing layout and creating content.

When your content is strategically designed, you increase your chances of engaging your readers — a worthy goal to have for your digital publication, whether you run an online magazine, a digital newspaper or simply just a business website. By taking away guesswork time out of your conversion rate optimization, understanding screeen reading styles can reveal some valuable insights into increasing conversions that can benefit your digital projects or business.

Below, Andrea Fryrear discusses 4 online reading patterns that can help you understand audience behavior, improve reader experience and spark engagement with your content marketing.

1. F-Pattern

This is the default viewing style of the reader who can’t find what s/he wants. You want to avoid this style of engagement with your content.

Whatever pattern they exhibit, nobody is reading your whole article/post when they land on your page. Instead they are scanning:

“when scanning,  people look at words, headings, or sections of pages, often out of order, fixating on only some of the words, rather than entire lines of text. When users scan they are usually doing two things: looking for a place where they want to commit and read, and/or collecting pieces of information from the noncontiguous portions of text that they fixate on.”

When people arrive on a page and can’t find any content clues, they start using an F-pattern to scan the content. (That’s if you’re lucky. If you’re not, they’ll just leave without even trying to check out the written content.)

On a heat map an F-pattern looks like this:

4 Screen Reading Patterns People Use When Scouring for Content Online

Readers fixate on the left hand side of the page, skimming content to see if anything jumps out. Since we can’t control the size of screen they’re using, writers and designers have little control over line breaks and therefore no control over what particular content readers will see using this scan pattern.

This means we can’t be sure readers using an F-pattern scan will find the crucial pieces of information we’re trying to convey.

2. Layer Cake

A guided tour through most of your page, this is what you should be aiming to achieve through judicious use of headers and clear text formatting.

Well structured content, on the other hand, will allow readers to bypass the unfortunate F-pattern of reading and let them consume a much higher percentage of your content through the layer cake pattern.

This means a layer of heading, followed by a layer of text, as you can see in this heat map:

4 Screen Reading Patterns People Use When Scouring for Content Online

See how much further down the eyes go with this pattern?

The researchers from How People Read on the Web found that, “People can be motivated to scan quite lengthy pages, as long as pages have discernible, descriptive headings and content divided into obvious chunks.

Then the hope is that by helping a reader dive deeper into your content they will find what they’re looking for and will then engage more fully with a particular section through the spotted and commitment scanning patterns.

3. Spotted

This pattern is often seen from users who arrive on a page through search. It indicates they’re looking for a particular word, and you should make sure your page can help them find it.

“In spotted scanning, the user scans more for specific word shapes, particular words, and text treatments that are different from normal text.”

They’ll typically only move to this type of engagement with online writing if they have identified the page as likely to contain the particular word/phrase/content they were searching for.

These styling elements are what readers are looking for during spotted scanning, and they include:

  • bolded words
  • underlined words
  • words in colors other than that of the main body text color (e.g. links)
  • numbers written as numerals
  • words in all capital letters
  • long words
  • words or initials that begin with a capital letter, appearing within a sentence
  • words in quotation marks
  • words with trademark, copyright, number power, or other symbol attached
  • words that are shaped like specific words they are looking for
  • words above, below, or beside any of these elements.

Don’t overuse any of these, or you’ll risk overwhelming readers very quickly. But incorporate them judiciously, particularly around your targeted keywords, and readers will be confident that your page can answer their questions.

4. Commitment

Here is the holy grail of online content, during which a reader does actually devour every word you’ve written. The only way you get here, however, is by using design and content clues to prove that your page contains the content they were searching for.

The final scanning pattern, and the holy grail for online writers, is the commitment scanning pattern. Pernice, Whitenton and Nielsen note that, “[t]his pattern indicates more precise and thorough reading in only areas related to the topics the reader is most interested in.”

Heat maps showing this scanning pattern indicate that a user has found the content they were searching for. They’ll often read this content word for word and do quite a bit of scrolling around it. This, my friends, is what those of us writing online are aiming for, but we have to work hard to get it.
Read full article on B2C.

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