Use visual cues to improve user experience

F-shaped heat mapsStarting your stories with a strong introduction is a key principle drummed into newspaper reporters, with sub-editors also learning the power of headlines, images and page layout.

But this isn’t just for print journalists – these same principles are now being drummed into those responsible for writing the UK Government’s web content.

Civil service scribes are being reminded about the importance of visual cues to help improve user experience, according to a recent blog post from the Government Digital Service.

This is explained, in part, in terms of structure. And eye-tracking studies from the Nielsen Norman Group demonstrate why this is so important.

The Group recorded 232 users who looked at thousands of web pages. They found that users’ main reading behaviour was fairly consistent across many sites and tasks. The dominant reading pattern resembled an ‘F’ formation, covering three components:

1. Users first read in a horizontal movement – usually across the upper part of the content area (which forms the F’s top bar).

2. Then users moved down the page and read across in a second horizontal movement which typically covered a shorter area than the previous movement (which forms the F’s lower second bar).

3. Finally, users scanned down the left hand side in a vertical movement (which forms the F’s stem).

This pattern roughly resembles an ‘F’ as you can see from the images here.

The results, therefore, suggested:

1. Users won’t read your content thoroughly word-by-word in an exhaustive manner.

2. The first two paragraphs must state the most important information – though users are more likely to read more of the first paragraph than the second.

3. Start subheadings, paragraphs and bullet points with information-carrying words that users will notice when scanning down the left side of your content.

While I absolutely agree with all of the above, these principles are not unique however to writing web content. As suggested previously, print journalists, as well as other communications-related professionals, have been using these principles for many years.

That said, it’s useful advice and writing web content is a skill to be mastered. Given the sheer weight and complexity of the material that Government is faced with, this sort of training and advice can only help improve user experience.

Thanks to Christine Cawthorne for the inspiration for this post.

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