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Part of: Content design

How people read

Last updated: 3 February, 2022

Online, people behave differently.

Nielsen Norman Group, a world leading user research organisation, has been telling us since 1997 that on the web people do not read.

Why people do not read

People are not reading your content as they would a journal or magazine article. They do not read every word. They're glancing over your content.


This is because people are generally not online to spend a lazy hour or 2 browsing over their Sunday morning latte. Occasionally they might be. But not often.

Instead you usually have about 3 seconds to capture attention. Even then you may not get their full attention. They may be multi-tasking. Especially if on a mobile.

What users want

People come to your site to use it not visit it. They're there to do a task, or get information to help them do a task offline.

Even if their task is to gain knowledge, they want to find and add it to their personal information bank, their brain, as quickly as possible. They'd download it directly if they could. 

Creating scannable content

Site users are looking for words connected to the task they are trying to carry out. They scan down the left of your page, reading across a few headings, in an F-shaped pattern.

The less words you have on the page, and the better structured your content, the easier it is for them. 

You need to be specific, informative and concise.

Getting the words right

Great online content comes when the content creator is the detective, not the user:

  • find the words your users are looking for 

  • do your desk research 

  • use Google trends

  • test the content with users

Designing, not typing

You've done your research, you know the tasks your users are trying to complete, you know what words they are using, you're raring to go.

Stop right there. Resist the temptation to start typing as if you are answering an essay question in a 30 minute exam. 

Half of content design is thinking.


Ask yourself what's the best way to present information your users need? The simplest, clearest, easiest, way to convey things.

This might not be a page of words. It could be a tool, like a calculator. It could be camera-trigger functionality, rather than instructions about taking and uploading a photo.


If you decide a page with words is the best, you still need to think about how to structure that using content design elements. These include accordions, guides, bullet points, feature boxes. They'll need to be inclusively designed. 

And you'll need good, clear headings


You might want to sketch out your page layout. You might like to show other people your ideas, maybe do some very early user testing.


Then you can write. 

Usability evidence

'How little do users read', J. Nielsen, 2008

'F-shaped pattern for reading web content discovered' First F-shaped pattern study by J. Neilson, NNg, 2006

'F-shaped plus different reading patterns', updates to 2006 study by Jakob Neilson, NNg, 2017

'First 2 Words: A Signal for the Scanning Eye' Jakob Neilson, NNg, 2006

‘Be succinct! (Writing for the web)’, Nielsen, J., NNg, 1997

'Legibility, Readability, and Comprehension: Making Users Read Your Words', J. Nielsen, NNg, 2015

‘Reading to learn to do’, Redish, J. C., 1989. Online PDF.

'Understanding_Readers', Redish, J. C., Chaper 1, Techniques for Technical Communicators, Barnum, C. B., Carliner, S., 1993. Online PDF.

'Reading on the Web: Implications for online information design', Schriver, K., chapter in 'On information design', Oven, P. C., 2016.

'Writing for GOV.UK', UK Government website writing guidance

'GOV.UK content principles: conventions and research background', UK Government website, 2013

'Writing for the web versus writing for print. Are they really so different?', Gregory, J., Technical communication, 51, 2, pp. 276 to 85. 2004

‘The reading brain in the digital age: the science of paper versus screens’, Jabr, F. , Scientific American on-line, 2013

'The science of word recognition', Mike Jacobs, 2017

‘Changes in web usability since 1994’ Nielsen, J., 1997

‘Organisation and comprehensibility in scientific proofs’, Dee-Lucas, D, and J. Larkin, Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 4, pp. 701 to 14. 1990. Locked

'Good and bad structure in simple paragraphs: effects on apparent theme, reading time and recall’, Kieras, D., Journal of verbal learning and verbal behaviour, 19, pp. 13 to 28. 1978. Locked. Related with free access: 'Visual Search Without Selective Attention: A Cognitive Architecture Account', Kieras, D. 2018

‘Topic structure representation and text recall’, Lorch, R. and E. Lorch, Journal of Educational Psychology, 77, 2, pp. 137 to 48. 1985. Locked

‘Concise, SCANNABLE, and objective: how to write for the web’, Morkes and Nielsen, 1997

‘Inverted pyramids in cyberspace’, Nielsen, 1996 

'Depth- and breadth-first processing of search result lists. CHI '04 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems', Klöckner, K., N. Wirschum, et al, Vienna, Austria, ACM: 1539 to 1539. 2004. Locked

'Accurately interpreting clickthrough data as implicit feedback', Proceedings of the 28th Annual International ACM SIGIR Conference on Research and Development in Information Retrieval, Joachims, T., L. Granka, et al,  Salvador, Brazil, ACM: 154 to 61. 2005. Locked. Related free access article: 'In Google We Trust: Users’ Decisions on Rank, Position, and Relevance', Pan, B., Hembrooke H., and others

'Web style guide', Chapters 10. Editorial Style, Lynch, P. and S. Horton, 4th edition, 2016

'The Effect of Type Size and Case Alternation on Word Identification' F. Smith, D. Lott and B. Cronnell, The American Journal of Psychology, 1969

Further reading

'Content Design', S. Richards, 2017

'The Psychology of Reading' K. Rayner and A. Pollatsek, 2012

Saccadic masking, discovered by Erdann and Dodge, 1898

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