by Alix E. Peshette

Cross-posted from the Impetuous Geek

No one is reading online content! Yes, that's right, according to a "readability expert." The proclaimation isn't all bad news; it's just one more indicator of human adaptation to the digital environment. The word is that everyone now scans web pages. Without going into the whys and wherefores and bemoaning this development; how people now read online content is fascinating! It also supports some of my personal ideas about the formatting of text on digital and printed pages.

I started looking into readability research to quote in a professional development grant proposal. It wasn't easy to find much on this topic. There were lots of resources for readability tests; Flesch Reading Ease, Flesch-Kincaid grade level, the 850-word Ogden "Basic" or "Simple English" set, but I wanted research.

Here's what I found; yes, we scan text - in an F shaped pattern! Eyetracking researcher Jakob Nielsen summarized that
"Eyetracking visualizations show that users often read web pages in an F-shaped pattern: two horizontal stripes followed by a vertical stripe."

"In our new eyetracking study, we recorded how 232 users looked at thousands of Web pages. We found that users' main reading behavior was fairly consistent across many different sites and tasks. This dominant reading pattern looks somewhat like an F and has the following three components:
  • Users first read in a horizontal movement, usually across the upper part of the content area. This initial element forms the F's top bar.
  • Next, users move down the page a bit and then read across in a second horizontal movement that typically covers a shorter area than the previous movement. This additional element forms the F's lower bar.
  • Finally, users scan the content's left side in a vertical movement. Sometimes this is a fairly slow and systematic scan that appears as a solid stripe on an eyetracking heatmap. Other times users move faster, creating a spottier heatmap. This last element forms the F's stem."

For devotees of white space, bullets and "clumps of text" on web pages and in print, this is sweet vindication! So what do we need to do so that audiences read what we post?

" Web pages have to employ scannable text, using

  • highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others)
  • meaningful sub-headings (not "clever" ones)
  • bulleted lists
  • one idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph)
  • the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion
  • half the word count (or less) than conventional writing "

This calls for a major re-thinking of how we educators produce content for our 21st century learners. There is more on how to write for the web on Nielsen's web site. While this is only one research study, it's fairly current as of 2006. I would love to find more on this topic. If you have any sites to share, please leave a comment!

Views: 41

Tags: development, learning, online, professional, readability, research, text

Comment by Derrick Waddell on July 27, 2010 at 11:58pm
I've definitely caught myself doing this, especially on articles that I hold a passing interest. I think Internet posts are comparable to newspapers and magazines, because I've been doing the same in those print medias for years, and even in my text books in middle and high school.

So, I don't think it's as much a testament to the Internet, but instead a testament to the changing nature in how people want to consume information. Still, it does pose a problem for educators who are used to just making students read passages. I definitely agree with your points for

*highlighted key words
* subheadings
* lists

Thanks for a great post!
Comment by Alix E. Peshette on July 28, 2010 at 12:19pm
Many thanks for your insightful comments. There is further research on how high-literacy readers "read content" in general - print and online. While I'm not fond of bullets per se, due to the bad rap on Power Point presentations, I'm a maniac about lack of white space and contextual graphics in training documents.

I enjoyed your blog post about social science resources - especially the FedFix one! I'm a prior 7th grade social studies teacher and always like to find good online resources.



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