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Overcoming the F-shaped problem

The famous web user experience experts Nielsen Norman Group identified the F-Shaped Pattern For Reading Web Content back in the noughties. Many years on, it is still relevant to the way we write and layout pages, even if exceptions have been shown and ways to avoid it identified.

What the study showed was that many web users start by reading the top of a page left to right; then they drop down and again read left-to-right; and finally they just scan down the left side vertically. This forms an F shape.

Users are most likely to do this when a page has a wall of unbroken text without highlights or subheadings; in other words, there are no graphical or layout guides to direct them.

The problem here is that if the words reflow to fit the screen, what words will the user see if they scan in an F shape? It’ll be a fairly random selection. So we need to force the content into the shape we want.

The experts suggest the following steps to get around this:

  • Put the most important points at the very start
  • Use very visible subheadings; ensure they convey their message in the first 2–3 words
  • Break up items into boxes or panels
  • Use text highlighting and bullets
  • Keep content lean and efficient