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Your Customers Are Scanning: Research-Based Tips For Better Web Usability

The hard facts are in: web users aren’t always reading your thoughtful homepage text. They’re often scanning it, and moving on. Time to consider your website’s usability. Smashing Magazine editor Vitaly Friedman says, “Usability and the utility, not the visual design, determine the success or failure of a website.” It’s not all about looking pretty, friends.

When users scan, they seek the words, icons, and phrases that will help them find what they came for. You can be sure your visitors are scanning. Tailor your content for the scanners, and be assured that they’re not missing anything. User testing research directs us to sure-footed design tips for usability, and we’re ready to share. This article will offer research-tested suggestions that will increase website usability and convert visitors to customers with effective calls-to-action. Let’s start with the scary stuff: the scanners.

Jakob Nielsen and the 79%

When usability researcher Jakob Nielsen had test users perform basic tasks on five different versions of the same website information, he found that 79 percent of the participants always scanned any new page they came across. Only 16 percent read word-for-word. His conclusion: employ scan-able text online. His tips:

  • Highlight keywords.
  • Use bulleted and numbered lists to break up information.
  • Stick to one idea per paragraph.
  • Take every paragraph of conventional writing, and cut the word count in half.
  • Go journalistic with an inverted pyramid style of delivery. Put the most important information at the top, and work down with details.

What about the 16%?

Nielsen has ideas for them, too. The five website versions Nielsen tested included one with entirely promotional language. “Marketese”, as he calls it. You know the stuff: “The best chicken wings in the world!”

His test users detested the promotional version. He concluded that to impress the 16% reading word-for-word, and to make the scanning experience even smoother for the 79%, web owners should:

  • Make credibility a priority. High-quality graphics, testimonials, outbound hypertext links, and error-free writing all boost user confidence.
  • Absolutely avoid “marketese”. Goes hand-in-hand with credibility. An inflated claim about your product or service does not impress the thorough reader.

Your web users are on a mission to find what they need and move on. If you can provide a workflow experience that fits their mode of travel, then you can bet that they’ll be back again. Cater to the scanners, with an understanding of what word-for-word readers can gain from learning about your company or service.

Eye-tracking evidence

Monitoring the point of gaze or the motion of the eye with video technology gives usability researchers evidence of how users scan pages online. Eye-tracking firm Eyetools conducted a study with search marketing firms Did-It and Enquiro to track where users tend to look first on a new page.

Fifty participants were given five scenarios that required a search engine. The results from the test found that most participants scanned in a “golden triangle” pattern. This f-shaped space extended “from the top of the search results over to the top of the first result, then down to a point on the left side at the bottom of the ‘above the fold’ visible results” (eyetools.com).

The research suggests that we can further cater to scanners by positioning pertinent text within this f-shaped boundary. The upper-left region of your website (and above the fold), is a scan-able sweet spot.

Margins make more than a marginal difference

We can put our text on a word-count diet and position it in digestible chunks for scanners, but how can we assure that users are retaining the information? A study on readability (Chaparro et al, 2004) considered the impact of margins on user comprehension. Twenty college students were given two text passages to read with different margin specifics. After reading, the participants were given comprehension questions about the passages.

The passages with more white space (margins) were comprehended better than those without margins.

When designing for scanners, consider the use of margins:

  • Margins often facilitate shorter line length, which is effective for scanners. Longer line lengths (11 words or more), require greater lateral eye movements.
  • Margins might slow the reader down a bit, but will assure greater comprehension of the material.
  • Margins require white space, and should get you thinking about graphic placement, line-heights, and colour usage. These elements can be optimized for readability.


We’ve talked about developing a startup with the right tools and creating dynamic customer experiences, but usability clearly holds priority in developing a successful web presence. User-tested research gives us clues for getting business messages across in a meaningful, comprehensive format.

Sometimes we have to take a step back from our startup or business and try to perceive it from the outside. Users don’t need to be dazzled to believe in your service as much as you do. They need ease of use. They need scan-able text.

And to you, our valuable 16% who has made it to the end of this article, a massive thank-you is in order. You keep us constantly innovating. Check back next week for more startup tips!


Barbara Chaparro and Baker, Shaikh, Hull, Brady. “Reading Online Text: A Comparison of Four White Space Layouts.” Usability News. July 2004
Chapman, Cameron. “10 Usability Tips Based on Research Studies.” 15 September 2010. Sixrevisions.com
Friedman, Vitaly. “10 Principles of Effective Web Design.” 31 January 2008. SmashingMagazine.com
“Google Search’s Golden Triangle.” Eyetools.com
Nielsen, Jakob. “How Users Read on the Web.” 1 October 2007.Useit.com

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