Make Sure Your Website Gets an F
Do you have your own blog or Web site, or are you responsible for the site of another individual or an organization or company? If so, remember that the medium is (also) the message — how the information is presented affects how it is received.
So, to help site visitors engage with your content, consider the F — not the letter f, but the online-design principle of the F-shaped pattern.
One way people who study engagement with online content measure that engagement is by eye tracking: observing the eye movements of test subjects as they navigate within and between pages on a Web site. Research results have shown that most site visitors scan Web sites with eye movements roughly corresponding to the F shape.
Because Western culture is, well, acculturated to engaging in text-based visual stimuli from the top left of a piece of content, Web designers have learned to put the most important visual information in that position on a Web page. (Quick — what do you see at the top left of this page? That’s right, the logo form of the site name — its brand.)
And because readers of English (and all other Indo-European languages) read from left to right, it is natural for our eyes to move to the right from our first point of reference. That means that usually, our first eye-tracking movement is a line like the top horizontal line in the uppercase version of the letter f.
Then, accustomed as we are to return to the left margin of a page, we backtrack horizontally or return diagonally to that location (as opposed to reading boustrophedon, or in a zigzag pattern). At this point, we skim from left to right again, as if forming with the movement of our eyes the letter f’s second horizontal element.
A snapshot of an eye-tracking study (which often employs heat-mapping technology and connect-the-dots lines to record the ocular oscillations) may show multiple horizontal sweeps, but these lines generally extend less and less as the eyes travel downward, and a vertical line along or near the left margin of the page is also an almost invariable artifact of such studies, demonstrating that many site visitors scan down the page at about the same short distance from the margin.
Variations occur, of course, especially when the page designer incorporates an arresting textual or illustrative element elsewhere on the page, but the F shape is the default setting for displaying written content online. (This pattern doesn’t necessarily apply when the home page features a block of text, but it’s typical on home pages dominated by a table of contents or a directory.)
The take-away: As you’ll see from studying this site and many others, the F-shaped presentation of content is a pervasive and persuasive scheme of organization. There’s more to it than that, of course — and I’ll share more tips in subsequent posts — but this outline starts not with a, but with f.
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