Skip to main content Skip to navigation

How people read online

People read differently online

As you scroll this page, take a mental note of how you do it. Do you read every word? Or do you end up skipping quickly through it? With this in mind, find out how to build pages for your users which will work better than this one.


People are on the hunt for something

We often like to imagine that websites are like shop windows.

We imagine that users will look, and then take a curious glance around, and be impressed or interested in something else instead.

This is not how people act online.

Stop imagining your user idly browsing through your website like it's a window. Start picturing them sprinting into the empty atrium of your building, late for a meeting:

How do people look for information?

In a building

On a webpage

They will look for an obvious signpost to the place they want to go.

They will look for an obvious link to click.

They will not appreciate dozens of complicated signs all over the place.

They will not appreciate dozens of colourful boxes with reams of information.

They will be annoyed with doors that are locked by mistake.

They will be annoyed with pages that are locked off by mistake.

They will not wait for the receptionist to come back from lunch.

They will not try your Contact Us form right away.

They will not take time to enjoy the lovely wall displays for the fun of it.

They will not take time to look at your 'History of the department' page for the fun of it.

They will probably dash back outside and ask for help.

They will go back to Google and search again.


Remember

The following three things should be always obvious to your audience almost as soon as they open your page:

  1. What is this page? (purpose)
  2. What can I do here? (benefit)
  3. What could or should I do next? (call to action)

People find it harder to read online

Sensory issues

Reading on a computer is harder than on paper. Compared to paper, reading on a screen is more tiring, and screens can hurt our eyes.


Lack of sense of 'place'

Reading online is less of a tactile experience. You do not have that feeling of remembering where you got up to in a book for example, like you would with a paper copy.


Distractions

Finally, it’s generally a bit harder to remember what we read on screens compared to on paper. There are often more distractions when you are reading on a screen, which interrupts your working memory.

You also often have to scroll, which takes up some mental energy, and every click or choice you need to make can make it that little bit harder.


In summary:

  • Reading online is more difficult
  • It is easier to lose your place online
  • We are all lazy and distracted

Other top things you should know before writing

The more you understand about how people process information and act on it, the more useful your webpages will be.


1) We "read" offline and "scan" online

When we read offline, we tend to read more thoroughly. We make connections and come up with new ideas. There is a reason why the makers of the Kindle have worked hard to make it feel more like a book.

Online we skim and scan.

We do not internalise information or ideas as easily.

  • We scan quickly up and down pages (often in an F-like pattern)
  • We do not go always below the fold
  • Sometimes, we do not even go beyond a headline

From now on, do not assume that people have 'read' your text, understood it or remember it afterwards.

See how to build your page using a strong structure.


2) We think "easy is true"

We tend to make decisions intuitively, and we prefer things that are easy to think about. Cognitive fluency signals familiarity, we do not have to overthink it, it is ‘safe’.

See how to write in an easy-to-read way


3) We all have a "curse of knowledge"

Once you know something, you cannot un-know it, and it is hard to imagine not knowing it. (If you need convincing, think back to a time you played Charades.) Does everyone know what a seminar is? How about a lecture, or Vice-Chancellor? Always explain what you mean.

See why to avoid abbreviations and acronyms.


4) We can read without understanding

Reading and comprehending are two different things.

Take a look at the following example to see the difference which a headline can make to understanding the information that follows:

“First, you sort the items into like categories. Using colour for sorting is common, but you can also use other characteristics, such as texture or type of handling needed. Once you have sorted the items, you are ready to use the equipment. You want to process each category from the sorting separately. Place one category in the machine at a time.”

Your new washing machine

“First, you sort the items into like categories. Using colour for sorting is common, but you can also use other characteristics, such as texture or type of handling needed. Once you have sorted the items, you are ready to use the equipment. You want to process each category from the sorting separately. Place one category in the machine at a time.”


5) A picture speaks a thousand words

There is a special part of the brain for recognising faces - neurotypical users in particular are drawn to them and pick them out faster than almost anything else. It's instinct.

If you want to create an emotional connection with a viewer, someone looking at the camera is best. On some level, emotions are contagious, and you can show the emotions you want someone to feel.

If you want to make people feel happier, pastoral scenes tend to work better.

  • Prioritise photos and videos of people
  • Fewer photos of buildings and scenery
  • Make it emotional

6) We process information best in story form

The brain is more active with stories. It's attuned to anything to do with danger, food, sex, movement, or faces.

When you read, your brain is processing visual information. When you listen, your auditory cortex is active as well. And when you hear a story that goes beyond facts and figures, your brain works in different ways, and your body releases different chemicals:

  • describing smells activates your olfactory sensory areas
  • describing motion activates your motor cortex
  • describing something tragic activates your empathy areas
  • if it's tense, the hormone cortisol is released
  • if it's heartwarming, then oxytocin is released
  • If it has a happy ending, then dopamine is released

You are having a richer brain event and retain the information longer.

How can you build actual stories into your work? Stories from staff, students and others? If you do not tell stories yourself, you should advocate for them.

Next steps

Once you have explored this page, it's time to put your findings into action.

How to write for the web