"Reaction [beta]"

F me! 18 Apr 2006

Jakob Nielsen's latest Alertbox - "F-Shaped Pattern For Reading Web Content (April 17, 2006)" informs us that "Eyetracking visualizations show that users often read Web pages in an F-shaped pattern". Nielsen tracked the eye movements of 232 users across thousands of websites and found that the dominant reading pattern consisted of three components.

  • Users first read in a horizontal movement, usually across the upper part of the content area. This initial element forms the F's top bar.
  • Next, users move down the page a bit and then read across in a second horizontal movement that typically covers a shorter area than the previous movement. This additional element forms the F's lower bar.
  • Finally, users scan the content's left side in a vertical movement. Sometimes this is a fairly slow and systematic scan that appears as a solid stripe on an eyetracking heatmap. Other times users move faster, creating a spottier heatmap. This last element forms the F's stem.

At first glance, this may seem like something of a revelation - "An F shape you say? Who would've thought it?". But after thinking about it for a few seconds, it soon becomes clear that Nielsen is just stating the obvious.

As Westerners, we read from left to right and top to bottom - so it should come as no real surprise that we pay more attention to content located at the top and to the left of pages and less attention to that located at the bottom and to the right (with the top-left corner of the page attracting the most attention and the bottom-right corner attracting the least accordingly).

Furthermore, we usually focus more on content located at the top of the page and less on that located at the bottom. We read headlines, strap lines and summary paragraphs in detail, for example, because we are trying to find out what the article is about and whether it's worth our time. Then, as we read further down the page, we begin to tire or lose interest. Sometimes we decide to skim the remainder of the text - reading just the first few words of each paragraph as we scan down the left-hand margin. And often we give up prematurely.

Everybody knows this, but few people - other than those that work with eye tracking technology - have seen it illustrated in heatmap form. And that's Nielsen's genius. All that's left to do is give it a snazzy label - "The F-Shaped Pattern" - and you've managed to repackage common knowledge into a media-friendly sound byte.

But despite stating the obvious, there are a couple of things that are interesting about Nielsen's report.

Firstly, it seems like Nielsen is trying to pass off discovery of the "F" shape as his own, when in fact, this pattern was first noted by Enquiro in a report published last year about Google's "Golden Triangle". Enquiro's press release states: "There seems to be a "F" shaped scan pattern, where the eye tends to travel vertically along the far left side of the results looking for visual cues (relevant words, brands, etc) and then scanning to the right if something caught the participant's attention". Perhaps Jakob missed this, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Secondly, Nielsen seems to suggest that F-shaped scanning is an innate human behaviour - something that we can't change and that we should therefore design for when creating our page layouts. But it could also be argued that it was the pages that Nielsen tested that produced the F-shaped scanning behaviour, not the users.

Nielsen says that his "heatmaps show how users read three different types of Web pages". Yet, while the pages he has chosen clearly serve different purposes, they are almost identical in terms of layout - header across the top, navigation on the left, content in the middle and ads on the right. It therefore seems unfair to conclude that the F-shaped pattern is a function of users and not the three identical page designs.

Suggesting that F-shaped scanning is innate seems to push a very specific agenda - an agenda that sees users' behaviour (and ultimately usability gurus like Nielsen) driving design. Yet it seems to me that, in this particular instance, it is design that is driving users' behaviour.

Next article: The trouble with gold stars

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