The famous answer by Jakob Nielson to “How do users read on the web?” is “They don’t.”
Very few web users read written web content word-for-word. Instead, they scan the page searching for the information they want.
However, I question this finding. The eye tracking study which showed people scanning for information on the page was conducted in such a way that participants were given the task of looking for specific information on the page. When a person is searching for something in particular they will scan written text looking for it, whether it is written on a screen, paper or the side of a building. But there are still plenty of people who like to read in order to learn, for entertainment or because it is enjoyable. These are the people I want to write for.
Reading behaviour for long articles
To me, a more interesting question is, how do people read an article on the internet when they are interested in what it has to say? Are there differences in how we read a 1,000 word magazine style article on a website compared to how we read it in a newspaper?
Farhad Manjoo wrote an article on Slate which looks at roughly this question. He asked a data scientist to analyse the scrolling behaviour on Slate articles to determine what proportion of users scroll all the way through their articles. Taking a very broad view it seems that only something like 10 to 20% of users scroll all the way to the bottom of an article. These figures do have some correlation with actual reading in that better quality articles tend to end up with a better proportion of people scrolling all the way to the end to see what is there.
Reading online takes longer
It takes people approximately 20-30% longer to read online than it takes to read on paper. (The effects of reading speed and reading patterns on the understanding of text read from screen. Mary Clare Dyson & Mark Haselgrove Journal of Research in Reading 23(2):210–223 · June 2000)
Multitasking is more likely online
In a study comparing on-screen and hard copy reading, 90% of students stated that they are more likely to multitask when reading from a screen. (Redefining reading: The impact of digital communication media. NS Baron – PMLA, 2013)
Reading from a screen is harder
Naomi Baron found that people consistently said it is harder to concentrate when reading from a screen, and that it is easier to focus when reading hard copy.
Physicality of books helps reading
Baron noted that in her studies there were significant preferences for the physical attributes of books, preferences which can inform how web writing could be made easier to read. These physical aspects of books include the ease of navigation and knowing where one is reading and how it relates to the overall text, the book cover and it’s visual imprint on memory, being able to easily annotate a book, and the ease of flipping from place to place in a paper book.
Short and scannable is not the only option
Despite the commonly held view that web readers prefer short, scannable content, there is evidence of an audience hungry for longer articles that engage and inform them. In fact, Jacqueline Marino found that even if an article is very text heavy, it can still be engaging if it is well structured and well written. Similarly, Chris Giliberti argues that Millennials are seeking out high quality long form content to counter the constant stream of short, shallow web content which has become the norm.
Challenges to web writing
From what I’ve discovered about how people read online, here are some of the challenges for a web writer:
- Readers switch from linear reading to searching or skimming.
- Reading online is slower.
- Distraction is a problem for web readers.
- Web readers often multitask.
- Web writing needs to be well written and well structured.
- Readers typically expect shorter content online.
- It is assumed that reading should include instant access to other resources.
- Help readers navigate through the text.
- Visual markers are useful to readers.
- Ease of annotation may help readers.