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It is a well-known and established fact that web users consume content in a different manner compared to how one tends to read printed material such as magazines, newspapers and marketing brochures.
With the huge amount of information available and with new information being published every second of every day, combined with a general lack of time have led us to the point where we skim or scan through content on websites rather than read every word.

Research on usability and eye movement
Extensive research has been conducted by Dr Jakob Nielsen and Stanford University/Poynter Institute on this topic where they utilised usability tests and eye tracking studies which lead to the following interesting conclusions:
• 79% of users scan through website content instead of reading word for word, focusing on headlines, summaries and captions.
• Web readers are three times more likely than newspaper readers to limit in-depth reading to short paragraphs.
• Of those web users who do read the entire page, most only absorb 75% of the content.
• Web users tend to ignore irrelevant graphics.

How should website content and print content differ?
Printed magazine articles tend to be more expansive and are written for leisure reading pleasure. Printed newspapers articles tend to focus on the facts and often include previously reported related events to give the reader a sequence of events and context.
However, when writing website content, a different approach is required. Due to the sheer volume of information available on the internet and the ease with which it can be accessed, the web reader tends to focus on finding the correct information quickly.

Website content should be written with the user in mind (not the author, as is often the case with printed content) and the purpose or objectives of the content should be obvious. To this end, web content should contain shorter sentences and paragraphs and well-constructed headings that will enable the reader to accurately assess the information by first scanning the headlines.
In most cases, content written for print are generally consumed when the reader is in a more relaxed state of mind with a bit more time to read for enjoyment as opposed to hunting for specific information that so often characterises a web user.

The difference between a web user and print reader
According to Dr Nielsen, we tend to read 25% slower on a computer monitor than when we read content in print. Computer monitor reading also increases eye strain and fatigue.
When looking at how our eyes scan the pages of an electronic screen, web users often first scan the centre of the page before reading or scanning from left to right compared to just reading or scanning from left to right in the case of printed content.

Web users and print readers also tend to be different kind of information seekers; web users are more active seekers of specific information. If they can’t see the information they need from a quick scan through the text, they will not spend time looking for it. Print readers tend to be more passive in their search and will display more patience when looking for specific information, often gleaning through large pieces of content to find what they are looking for.

The longer the text is, the faster web users will scan through the headlines and the less likely they are to read it. Web users are also less likely to believe statements and claims that are not backed up with facts.

The original Nielsen research report will provide a more comprehensive overview of the research.


Author: Lize Sadie