Eye-tracking: this is how people read your posts

No matter how interesting you feel your own content is, it is the reader who decides how much of it he takes in. Which isn’t a lot. Fortunately, eye-tracking enables you to look over the reader’s shoulder and determine where to place your most essential subject matter.

In 2006, usability expert Jakob Nielsen let 232 respondents browse through thousands of websites. Using eye-tracking technology, he was able to map exactly where the respondents’ eyes went, and how long their gaze rested on specific areas. His conclusion: the way we look at texts on websites, has very little to do with the way we learn to read at school.

It starts off familiarly enough, with a horizontal gaze from left to right, at the top of the page, where we usually find the article’s title and lead. After this, however, we skip the next paragraph and consequently only scan the left part of the page, from top to bottom. The exact method naturally differs slightly from subject to subject, but after analysing thousands of results this F-shaped pattern is clearly visible.

A matter of seconds

So what does this insight into the reader mean for you as a writer? Before we really get into that, let’s illustrate the before-mentioned lesson with a more recent example. In 2013, career resource website TheLadders conducted a similar study by letting job searchers sift through a number of job ads. In a survey held prior to the research, 44 percent of job searchers said it would take them one to five minutes to examine a job ad. 19 percent even said it would take them up to ten minutes. They could not have been more wrong.

When the same job searchers were actually presented with the job ads, it took them an average of 50 seconds to classify them as unsuitable for them. Even the ads they were interested in, received only 77 seconds worth of attention. Within the texts, the job descriptions got the longest stares (26 seconds), but even those were more scanned than read, with the last lines being completely overlooked.

The reading pattern in this study also showed a clear F-shape. You can draw your first, obvious conclusion from this regarding how to convey your most important information to your readers.

In the coming articles, we’ll dive deeper into the importance of scannable texts, tips on how to write them, the role of images and much more.