People don’t read

It’s true! People don’t read. At best, they’ll read less than 30% of your (brilliantly researched, skilfully crafted, elegantly honed) copy.

We all know this, right? We all know about the F-shape – users scanning briefly down a page, only reading across when something salient grabs their attention. We know that they hop around in sentences, like over-excited bunnies, skipping 30% or so of each one.

Most people will give your page about 15 seconds of their time.

But people really, really don’t read

This was brought home to me recently when I watched 17 hours of video showing users ‘reading’ pages on the GOV.UK website.

Users missed an unbelievable amount. There are some simple design features that appear on lots of GOV.UK pages – like metadata showing the date and type of a publication. Users missed some or all of this. Or they saw it on one page and not on another, identical, page.

They miss sidebar navigation. Page titles. They miss links, logos, call-out boxes, you name it.

It’s enough to make a copywriter weep.

People scan – accept it and write for it

We all know the golden rules of writing well for the web. But there are some elements on a web page that specifically help users when they are scanning – like signposts.

It’s worth taking extra care with these.

How to help users scan your web page

Think about the structure of your content from the point of view of someone who’s scanning it quickly. They are checking to see if this is the right page for them. What are the signposts they are likely to see?

The most attention-grabbing structural elements are:

  • headings and sub-heads
  • bulleted lists
  • captions
  • links

Frontload headlines and subheads

These are your best chance to feed information to scanners. Do your keyword research, and use keywords in your headers.

People will be scanning your page for the words they used in Google. If they see their keywords in a nice big bold subhead – bingo! They’re in.

Use 5 words or less and front-load them. Use as many sub-heads as you need. Try writing them first.

Use bullets properly

Users like bullets because they:

  • jump off the page
  • are concise
  • are easy to read
  • signpost what the page is about

So, don’t just shove a bullet point at the start of a long, convoluted sentence. Don’t use sub-bullets, either. It’s defeating the point.

Write bullets that are a just few words long. Front-load them. Only use a few bullets in a list, and only a couple of bulleted lists per page.

Make sure your bullets reinforce the message for scanners: “This is what this page (or section) is about!”

Write proper captions

People are more likely to read a caption than any body text, especially if the image is good and relevant.

This is a golden opportunity to bang your message home. Write longer captions – 2 or 3 lines – like newspapers do. People will read them. (It’s astounding.)

Use links carefully

Use links and link text that help users work out what this page is about – as with bullets.

That means you should only link to things that are directly relevant to what you’re writing about. Read how to use links in content.

Be smart with structure

Keep paragraphs short. Remember, every time you start a new paragraph you create white space.

Single-line paragraphs can work well.

Scan the page yourself

Try and scan the page yourself. Only look at the structural elements we’ve talked about here.

Can you tell what the page is about without reading any of the actual copy? If so, your work here is done, and you’ll make a lot of quick-scanning readers very happy.

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