How People Read on the Web: The Eyetracking Evidence

We observed more than 300 people use hundreds of different websites (equaling 1.5 million fixations — or “looks” and recordings that comprise more than 300 GB of data). This 355-page report offers 83 recommendations for web writing and content layout, plus 102 detailed findings about how people read on the web, including scanning patterns revealed as we used eyetracking technology during usability tests.
The research findings are supplemented with 288 illustrations, which include the following:

  • Gaze plots (dots to indicate points where a person's eyes focus)
  • Heatmaps (color-coded visualizations of where many people look)
  • Screenshot examples
  • Graphs

Topics covered

  • How to attract attention with web page design
    • Making predictable, scannable pages to improve readability
    • Average time and fixations spent on different page types and designing for them
    • Specific elements people look at and read, and why
    • Writing and arranging content to lead people through your site
  • Gaze patterns users commonly exhibit and accommodating these behaviors
    • F-pattern
    • Layer Cake Pattern
    • Bypassing Pattern
    • Spotted Pattern
    • Commitment Pattern
    • Scanning vs. reading, why people do it, and how to drive user behavior with your design
  • Page design patterns for specific pages such as article pages, segmented pages, and search engine results pages (SERPs)
  • Gaze patterns commonly seen on SERPs and why these occur
    • Answer adequacy: Users find answers by consulting just the result titles and descriptions shown on the SERP
    • Kick effect: People look at the last result on a SERP before leaving the page. (The tenth organic result, on a page of 10 results, is the lowest result looked at in 12% of cases versus 7% combined for the seventh, eighth, and ninth results. In 59% of cases people looked no farther than the third organic result.)
    • Other patterns such as skipping, backtracking, love at first sight, zigzag, re-acclimating, and bypassing
    • Phrases that attract people, appeal to prurient interests, surprise, or degrade credibility
  • Encouraging reading through web formatting techniques
    • Writing styles that improve comprehension
    • Using headings, subheadings, and page priority — how to get these right
    • Information-bearing words in links and leading sentences, and their positive effect on usability and scanning
    • Eye-catching text elements such as capital letters and bulleted lists can create interest. People looked at 29% of words that appear in all capital letters. People look at lists with bullets more often than lists without bullets (70% vs. 55%, respectively).
    • Writing for people with low literacy
  • Fixed vs. liquid layout, and column width: The positives and negatives as they relate to scan patterns
  • Miscues that entice users to spend fixations on them at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons
  • Table layout for easiest data consumption
  • Dealing with complex content
  • Plan for scanning behaviors
    • Exhaustive review: People look extensively and repeatedly at an area or page because they expect the information they want to be there, but they cannot find it.
    • Directed scanning: A person looks for specific information such as a name or word and expects to find it on the page.
    • Motivated scanning: Scan patterns fueled by good page layout, interesting content, personal interest, or a trusted suggestion.
    • Impressionable scanning: A person is more open to reading the words as the author has written them.

Research Method

This report is based on a research study with 300 people aged 18 to 64 years. The method we used is Eyetracking, in which we followed people’s eye movement as they attempted activities on websites.
In addition to completing their own tasks, we asked people to attempt some of our prepared tasks (85 tasks total), ranging from very specific to very broad activities.
We conducted the study in an office and tracked each person’s eyes using eyetracking technology. The researcher sat in the same room with the participant and observe the participant’s screen in real-time using an external monitor.
After the study sessions, we analyzed each of the 1.5 million fixations that we captured. All of the studies took place in the United States, in New York City, NY and Boston, MA.