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How Do Web Users Think?

Basically, users’ habits on the Web aren’t that different from customers’ habits in a store.  Visitors glance at each new page, scan some of the text, and click on the first link that catches their interest or vaguely resembles the thing they’re looking for.  In fact, there are large parts of the page they don’t even look at.

Most users search for something interesting (or useful) and clickable; as soon as some promising candidates are found, users click.  If the new page doesn’t meet users’ expectations, the Back button is clicked and the search process is continued.

Users Appreciate Quality

If a page provides users with high-quality content, they are willing to compromise the content with the design of the site.  This is the reason why not-that-well-designed web-sites with high-quality content gain a lot of traffic over years.  Content is more important than the design which supports it. 

Users Don’t Read, They Scan

When users look at a web page, they search for some fixed points or anchors which will guide them through the content of the page.  This search generally follows a similar pattern regardless of the site in question.

Presented below are eyetracking visualizations of how users approached different web pages.  Note that despite the different underlying web page designs, the users followed a similar pattern on each page -- that being the general pattern of an "F".

Eyetracking Visulations of Various Web Sites

Heatmaps from user eyetracking studies of three websites done by Jakob Nielsen at Alertbox. The areas where users looked the most are colored red; the yellow areas indicate fewer views, followed by the least-viewed blue areas. Gray areas didn't attract any fixations.

What are the implications of this for the design of your web site?

  • Users won't read your text thoroughly in a word-by-word manner.  Exhaustive reading is rare, especially when prospective customers are conducting their initial research to compile a shortlist of vendors.  Yes, some people will read more, but most won't.

  • The first two paragraphs must state the most important information.  There's some hope that users will actually read this material, though they'll probably read more of the first paragraph than the second.

  • Start subheads, paragraphs, and bullet points with information-carrying words that users will notice when scanning down the left side of your content in the final stem of their F-behavior.  They'll read the third word on a line much less often than the first two words.

Users are Impatient and Insist on Instant Gratification

The less intuitive is the navigation and the more users have to think, the more users are willing to leave your web site and search for alternatives.

Users Don’t Make Optimal Choices

Users don’t search for the quickest way to find the information they’re looking for.  Users don't scan web pages in a linear fashion, going sequentially from one site section to another one.  Instead users satisfice; they choose the first reasonable option.  As soon as they find a link that seems like it might lead to the goal, there is a very good chance that it will be immediately clicked.

Users Follow Their Intuition

In most cases, users muddle through instead of reading all the information provided.  The basic reason for that is that users don’t care what you've put there; they just want to get where they want as quickly as possible.

Users Want to Have Control

Users want to be able to control their browser and rely on consistent data presentation throughout the site.  They don’t want new windows popping up unexpectedly and they want to be able to get back to the previous page with their browser's "Back" button.

References / Sources:

"10 Principles of Effective Web Design", Vitaly Friedman, Smashing Magazine

"F-Shaped Pattern For Reading Web Content", Jakob Nielsen, Alertbox



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