Scanning is searching. Reader’s behavior when scanning may seem pure laziness, but it’s not. It’s an efficient strategy to seek out and filter information. Scanning also allows readers to avoid informational overload.
How to tell if you’re scanning?
The 9 scanning patterns
As far as I know, NN specialists were the first to discover and research scanning patterns. They put cameras on peoples’ heads and monitored how they visually perceive digital pages with text and images. It’s like using Hotjar but for the eyes. So below are the most common eye-scanning patterns they found.
If we read from left to right, we scan text like this:
We look at the first words in every line of text and often look at more words per line in earlier lines. As we move down the page, we read fewer and fewer words on each line and only the words closest to the left:
In languages where we read from right to left, like Arabic, the F-pattern is mirrored:
Often, people only read / search / scan subheadings (h2):
This reading pattern helps find and identify the page’s topics. People read sections that are useful to them and ignore segments of texts with non-informative headings.
Concise, informative subheadings help readers find information quickly and maintain focus throughout the long text. So, making subheadings clear is more helpful than making them fun or smart.
Readers sometimes scan for Keywords Here, for example, a person searched for and looked at numbers mostly:
Spotting pattern is proof that scanning patterns are not random. We all subconsciously search for key information when reading on the web. There is no such thing as reading articles for pleasure (unless it’s New Yorker).
A rare gem. If you are interested in a certain subheader (h2), you’ll read the whole text under it:
The pattern implies people read all lines under a section of interest (another reason to make subheadings relevant).
Yeah, I should’ve mentioned it earlier—it’s really important—but I’ll hide this fact here for ‘committed’ writers only. When people read online, they don’t just scan—they search for answers. They do not read for pleasure but to find the information to resolve a task they have in mind. How to make cookie dough? Why am I so fixated on other’s people opinions? When was Elizabeth II born? Questions, questions… The text must provide answers.
OK, the commitment pattern. It only happens when readers find a section directly related to their task, topic, or interest. Common with cooking recipes. The reader can stop scanning after finding the correct info or stay wandering a bit more.
The commitment pattern has no negative emotions related to it, unlike its sibling, the exhaustive review pattern.
Students who study for exams read pages in this pattern. Copywriters who read other copywriters’ test tasks also read them like this:
An exhaustive review is never good, although looks cute in theory. It requires a lot of energy and going back and forth amidst the lines. The exhaustive review takes place when:
Readers often struggle to find or consume the information written. They have to backtrack a lot more than in the commitment pattern. The exhaustive pattern is a source of frustration and disappointment.
Happens when the reader skips text to read only the list:
List bypassing also means that readers will miss the first words of each line if they are very similar:
NN Group states that readers often skip “why” and “how” when scanning lists of frequently asked questions.
Readers can also skip over entire sections of the page:
It often happens to texts with low value. Section bypass looks like F-pattern with the exception that readers barely glance at lines
8. Lawnmower pattern
This one is less about text and more about website content as a whole. If the page is divided into cells of content—images, videos, texts—our eyes move in a lawnmower pattern (yes, like when you mow the grass): The following Apple Watch page is the perfect example of how ‘cells’ of content look and represent the lawnmower pattern:
This pattern occurs on pages with text and small text excerpts/images on the side: Why do people scan zigzagging? They are either attracted by images or confused by the text/them.
The 10 ways to adapt the text for max readability
Based on my personal experience and the structure of the eye, I would recommend the following 10 ways to adapt content to scanning:
Did you find this article helpful? Do you know of any other tips to make the texts more readable
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