Person reading a tablet

F-Patterns and Layer Cakes: Writing for Scanners

October 20, 2017

Right now your eyes are most likely moving down this screen in the shape of a letter F.

Eye-tracking studies by the Nielsen Norman Group found western readers
– scan across the first line of text on a screen,
– skim the beginning of the next lines,
– and race on down, often reading
per line. Maybe a few more words at the end.

Of course, purpose affects pattern. Someone Googling on their phone follows a different path than someone reading A Tale of Two Cities on their Kindle.

Design is key in controlling how people scan. And here’s how writing can make a difference.

Put important words at the left, within reason. Yoda you are not. Make the first three to five words count.

  • Original: Our Product X is designed to help you reduce energy use by up to 50 percent.
  • Revised: Cut energy use up to 50 percent with Product X.
  • Revised to make your lawyers sweat: 50 percent energy savings possible with Product X.

Organize with headers. Clear, concise, easy-to-spot heads and subheads help people decide what to read. Nielsen Norman calls this the “layer cake” approach, because eye-tracking graphics show the F-pattern is replaced with long horizontal “layer” lines across section headers.

Keep it short. Short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. ‘Nough said.

Use active, everyday language. Note that we did not say “Utilize.”

Keep an eye on change. Yesterday you clicked. Today you tap and scroll. Tomorrow, built-in eye tracking technology and other evolutions may change the way you use—and read on—and write for–your devices.

We’ll see.

Source: “How People Read Online: The Eyetracking Evidence,” 2013, Nielsen Norman Group