NEW research is smashing a decade-old belief among designers that the vast majority of people don’t actually read web content but merely skim it for pertinent facts.
The Poynter Institute‘s Eyetrack 07 study of 600 newspaper and news website readers found that about half of the online readers are methodical in their behavior, reading like they would on paper.
This presents surprisingly different results to what was previously believed. In 1997, usability guru Jakob Nielsen, citing usability studies with online users, declared that people don’t actually read online. Instead, the vast majority scanned pages and pecked at text briefly with their eyes, he reported.
To quote what he wrote a decade ago: “People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.”
That finding has been confirmed at least twice in Nielsen’s subsequent research.
A year ago in April 2006, Nielsen wrote after his firm’s own eyetracking research that web users don’t read text “in a word-by-word manner,” adding that “exhaustive reading is rare.”
This was reinforced again in June 2006 when Nielsen reported results from eyetracking tests on email newsletters. He said participants “fully read” only 19% of newsletters. “The predominant user behavior was scanning,” he reported.
Online users read more of an item than print readers
However, in the Poynter results revealed yesterday, researchers reported startlingly different behavior, with people being much more thorough readers online than thought.
They found that almost 50% of online readers tended to be methodical in their reading while the other half scanned pages.
“Online, there was very little difference in the amount of text read between methodical readers and scanners,” said Poynter researcher Pegie Stark Adam.
Also somewhat surprising, the Poynter study found that when people chose something to read, online users read a much larger percentage of story text than print readers. On average, online readers read 77% of what they chose to read. This concurs with Nielsen’s findings that people typically view three-quarters of the way down a web page.
However, the Poynter study suggests that a strong majority are now comfortable scrolling on web pages containing narrative text.
“In fact, nearly two-thirds of online readers, once they chose a particular item to read, read ALL of the text,” the researchers said.
Personally, I don’t think it matters what proportion of people read or scan. You have to support them all, including those who don’t do either activity because they are blind and use Braille or text-to-audio software.
Probably the most relevant result is that a strong majority of people are scrolling deep to read when they’re interested in content pages. The bottom area of web pages is vital real estate.
Like the area you’re looking at right now. How are we doing?