What Makes a Readable Website?

Posted in News on 05/02/21


The internet has revolutionized the world. We can now access a wealth of information in just a few clicks of our smartphone. However, combined with social media, it has also created a culture of instant gratification.

What does this mean for websites?

First, load speed is crucial. Research shows that 47% of users will leave a site if it takes longer than two seconds to load.

Google is said to aim for under half a second. Test out your site using Google PageSpeed Insights.

But a site’s ‘usability’ is much more than just load speed.

What is readability?

The idea of website readability began in the late 1990s when Jakob Nielsen – ‘the king of usability’ – conducted the first in-depth study on how users engage with websites. His article, How Users Read on the Web, revealed that users do not read but instead scan pages for select words and sentences.

Of course, this study is now over 20 years old, and consumer habits have changed. As a society, we are far more used to computers, while the rise of smartphones and responsive design has changed how we interact with websites.

How people read web content

Nielsen continued his research into eye tracking, and a 2006 study utilizing heatmaps revealed that users tend to scan websites in an F-shaped pattern. This means they do not read linearly as they would normally but instead read across the initial paragraphs before scanning down vertically and then across again. In the heatmap image below, the areas shown in red are those the eye is first drawn to, with orange and yellow next, while blue signifies text that might never register.

The implication for website developers is that they need to adapt a page’s layout to take advantage of hotspots, rather than presenting text as though for print.

Websites also need to use a different writing style, adopting a shorter and punchier format that sees headings and bulleted lists alongside bite-sized paragraphs.

Building on this report, in 2008 Nielsen found that people tend to read just 28% of the words on a page! A global study in 2019 found that these patterns were similar regardless of language or culture.

However, recent reports have shown that user reading habits are evolving further due to the rise of comparison tables and zigzag layouts. In addition to the F-pattern, gaze patterns might include a lawn-mower pattern, where users read along left to right before dropping down a row and reading from right to left and so on.

And the rise of search engines and search results has led to the pinball pattern of reading, which sees users scan the page in a nonlinear fashion, bouncing around from paragraph to paragraph.

Final thoughts

We are going to become an increasingly digital society, with website visitors more impatient and task orientated. It’s necessary to plan for short attention spans by providing succinct information in the right position on the page.

Understanding how users engage with your brand is crucial and can help you stand out from the crowd. If you want to discover how readable your website is, look at the archived articles from Jakob Nielsen and the team at Nielsen Norman Group here.

In a nutshell…

People tend to scan rather than read online. Plan your content with this in mind and present information with a clearly thought-out hierarchy

To draw the eye’s attention, use:

  • headings and subheadings
  • captions
  • article summaries
  • formatting techniques such as bulleted lists and bold text to highlight

And don’t forget to keep your text concise – aim for about half the word count as for printed text, using shorter sentences and plain English.

Finally, use ‘front-loaded ‘sentences (where the important information is placed upfront). A discursive style may be more elegant but is redundant if the user never reaches the main points.

Further Reading

How People Read Online: New and Old Findings

The Plain English Campaign: Tips for Clear Websites