How do we use the web?

22 May

Surfing the web is a becoming an increasingly bigger part of our lives. It is easy to forget that this is a new medium and assume that people will use it in the same way they use books or newspapers.

But as author Steve Krug reminds us in “Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability” (which I highly recommend), how we think people use Web sites and how they actually use them are two very different things.

When building websites we might assume that people will read the content of our pages, will take time to understand the structure of our website, will appreciate having a lot of information and options to choose from and will analyze the options and make the best decision.This is not how website users behave. Instead they scan the text on a page, they make rushed decisions, and they muddle through.

Now, let's take a look at each strategy:

Users don’t read pages, they scan them.

The way we approach web pages is different from the way we approach books. This happens because, in most cases, we don’t go to web pages for entertainment or to learn new information. Web pages help us solve problems quickly and we are interested only in the information that is related to our problem. So, it makes sense to scan the text for what we’re looking for and completely ignore everything else.

Scanning is how people treat text on the web and research has tried to answer the following questions: 

How much do users actually read?

Not much at all. On an average visit users have time to read at most 28%, says research. So the correct question is not how much, but “How little do users read?”.

When we scan, what areas do we look at?

An eyetracking study conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group (see full report here) showed that users only spend a few seconds to scan a web page and that the sections they look at have the shape of an F. This F is made up of a horizontal movement from left to right in the upper part of the content area, a second shorter horizontal movement downward in the body of the page, followed by a vertical movement on the left side of the page. There can be variations on this pattern but one thing is certain - users do not read web pages word by word, they glance at certain areas.

What are the implications of knowing this?

We need to let go of the idea that users will read content word for word and design for the web

Write text that is easy to scan by:

  • Writing in shorter sentences
  • Using the active voice instead of the passive voice (Eg. We built the site, not the site has been built).
  • Dividing text into chunks - this helps guide the user’s gaze
  • Using headings
  • Using bullets to separate ideas

Place important information in the first two paragraphs - if users do read something this is what is likely they will read.

Start sections, paragraphs, bullet points with information-carrying words. Users will notice them when scanning vertically on the left side of the page.

Users don’t make the best choice, they satisfice

When creating websites we tend to assume that users will carefully analyze the options presented to them and select the best one. Instead, when presented with options we choose the first reasonable option we encounter. This strategy is called satisficing and was first introduced by economist Herbert Simon. This term refers to the way people make decisions and is a cross between satisfying and sufficing. Users don’t put more effort into making decisions on the web because, well, effort is effort and our time resources are limited; when choosing incorrectly you can always use the back button, so there’s not much penalty for making rushed decisions.

Users don’t figure out how things work, they muddle through 

People use things all the time without understanding how they work, or by having an incorrect idea about how they work. The important thing is that it helps us get things done. Just think about the last time you used a web page or installed software or an app on your mobile without knowing exactly what was happening and what you were agreeing with - but you went on and muddled through anyway. We, as users, do this because figuring things out takes time and it’s just not that important to us.

The implication for creating websites is that things need to be made obvious, self-explanatory if possible. Users will appreciate it because although we manage by muddling through, it feels good when there is no need to muddle through. We feel in control and capable when we understand what we are doing and that means we’ll be coming back.

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