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Prevent F‑Pattern Scanning: Tips for Better Web Design

Learn how F‑pattern scanning affects reading online and how to create more scannable, user‑friendly web pages.

When you’re searching for information on the web, do you read every word? Or are you just skimming each page in hopes of quickly finding answers to your questions? If you’re like most people, you’re probably scanning websites, not reading them word for word.  

With so much online content and so little time, scanning is the key to rapidly locating the solutions to your queries. It’s not about looking wildly all over the page, though. Many people naturally follow common reading patterns while scanning for keywords and terms.   

However, not all scanning patterns are made equal. If your website designs encourage F-pattern scanning, visitors could overlook important info and leave within seconds. To keep your visitors engaged, use this guide to learn about F-shaped pattern scanning and the design tips that help prevent it.

What is the F-pattern in web design?

The F-pattern is a common way people’s eyes move across the page while browsing the web. They start at the top left corner, then move down and across a bit, and finally scan down the left side.

The horizontal scanning lines form the top and lower bars of the letter F, as the second line typically covers less area than the first. The vertical movement creates the F’s stem, completing the letter and often ending the visitor’s time on the page.

Ideally, this should help them find what they need without reading everything. But it doesn’t usually work out that way.

When the Nielsen Norman Group identified this reading pattern in 2006, one key takeaway stood out: Scanning in an F-shape causes people to miss key information and leave unsatisfied. This happens because users focus on the top and left sides, often missing what’s on the right side and lower parts of the page.

Why take the time to understand F-shaped pattern scanning?

You can help site visitors overcome the F-pattern for reading by building a clear visual hierarchy on your websites. The resulting structure helps alter users’ scan patterns, helping them find the information they’re looking for more quickly and easily.

Numerous benefits may result, such as:

  • Increased user engagement
  • Lower bounce rates
  • Extended time on page
  • More return visits
  • Elevated user satisfaction

So, it’s well worth taking the time to understand how to avoid problematic eye-tracking patterns. Your revised designs help users interact with and understand your site content more easily, contributing to improved website success.

Other scan patterns to avoid

The F-pattern is not the only scanning pattern worth preventing. The following are a few other scanning patterns that are also not ideal for user satisfaction and should be avoided when possible.

  • The spotted pattern occurs when users rapidly skim the page in search of specific data, like addresses, statistics, or links.
  • The marking pattern happens when website visitors keep their eyes fixed on a certain spot while scrolling down the page in a vertical line.
  • The bypassing pattern involves skipping the first few words of each line on the left side of the page when several sentences start off the same. 

Most effective scanning patterns for web content

Preventing people from scanning online content is practically impossible. In fact, most visitors tend to read only a portion of the content, picking out info that addresses their current needs. Therefore, your goal is not to stop scanning but to create designs that support more efficient reading behaviors, like the layer-cake pattern.

The layer-cake pattern is particularly powerful because it involves skimming the headings and subheadings on the page. This guides visitors smoothly through the content, helping them find the body sections most likely to have the information they seek. However, users can only successfully follow this pattern on websites with clearly defined headers relevant to the body text.  

The commitment pattern is when users read all the words on the page. Unsurprisingly, this kind of deep engagement is rare. It only occurs when visitors are intensely interested in the topic or otherwise motivated to learn more. For instance, someone excited about their trip abroad may read every word of travel advisories, detailed itineraries, or blog posts about the destination.

You really cannot create a design that encourages the commitment reading method. It just happens by chance. So, it’s best to assume your visitors will scan your content and create web page designs that encourage more beneficial scanning methods.

Tips for designing websites that prevent F-pattern scanning

When users scan content in an F-pattern, it causes them to miss vital information and gives the impression that your website is unhelpful. This can be prevented with thoughtfully designed layouts that grab attention and guide users in their content journey. Here’s how.    

Guide your website visitors with clear and concise headers

Bold, attention-grabbing headers serve as the building blocks of a highly scannable web design. You want the headers to stand out from the body text without overdoing it. Otherwise, your design attempts may backfire when users subconsciously identify the headings as ads and ignore them.

For the best balance, use a contrasting font for your headers. For example, if the body text is in a sans-serif font like Arial, consider using a serif font like Georgia for the headers. Also, make the font size for the headers about 150% bigger than the body text to give them more visual weight. Pair this with bold color variations, like green headers with black text, to create a visually striking design.   

Match the body copy to your headings and deliver valuable content

Consistency is at the heart of an intuitive web browsing experience. When your headers promise a topic or idea, the following body copy should deliver on that promise. If the content doesn’t match its header, your readers might feel misled and click away from the page to avoid wasting their time.

To prevent that, create an outline based on what users might want from that page. Write the headers clearly and succinctly, highlighting what you’ll discuss in the following sections. Then, ensure the body copy fully addresses the topic introduced by each header.

Get straight to the point with the inverted pyramid content style

When skimming through online content, people want to find answers fast. Their attention span is limited, and they may swiftly move on to another site unless the web page immediately captures their interest.

To accomplish this, make it clear that your page has what they’re looking for by using the inverted pyramid content style. With this approach, you fully answer the reader’s questions in the paragraph’s initial sentences before going into more detail.   

Use white space and images for a good visual hierarchy

White space and images go hand in hand when creating a strong visual hierarchy. The negative space gives content breathing room and puts emphasis on valuable design elements, like headings and subheadings. Images, on the other hand, break up blocks of text and engage readers visually.

Make these elements work for you by giving all headings generous white space and maintaining fairly consistent spacing between text sections. Choose images that correspond with the content’s main ideas and position them so they flow well with the text. 

Highlight important information with bullet points

Bullet points break up dense text, making it easier to skim through content. When used appropriately, they quickly convey key points, so nothing’s missed by even the fastest scanners.

Want to use bulleted lists to elevate your content? Select 1-3 dense paragraphs that could be summed up in a series of bullets. Introduce each list with a brief sentence, then write each point, starting with the most important information first.

Position CTAs at the left and right sides of the page

Despite your best efforts, some users might still use the F-shaped scanning pattern when visiting your site. If you ignore that fact, you could miss out on conversions. So, it’s best to plan for it and position your calls to action (CTAs) accordingly.

Think about where the F-pattern and layer-cake scanning will begin and end. Position your CTAs at those points to capture users’ attention right when they pause to move on to the next area. This additional element forms a strategic touchpoint no matter what reading methods your visitors employ.

Create easily scannable websites for better user engagement  

Stellar web design practices are key in preventing problematic scan patterns. With the right layout, design elements, and content, your websites can deliver the maximum value to your visitors. They’ll stay longer, read deeper, and engage more, ensuring your success as a web designer. Ultimately, a website that’s effortlessly scannable isn’t just user-friendly—it’s a game changer.

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