By: Karla Gutierrez

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October 1st, 2013

How We Read Online— A Guide for eLearning Professionals

eLearning | eLearning tips

Brain research opens up new opportunities eLearning designers should make the most of. One such opportunity lies in how people read on the web. By tracking eye movements and fixation points while readers look at web content, studies after studies found answers to questions like

Where do people focus their attention when reading online?

When do people read and when do they scan?

How can we encourage people to read more on screen?

This guide should be enough to help you tap the latest scientific studies and create an effective eLearning course—with content people actually read and care about.


Users Pay More Attention to the Left Side of the Screen

In an eye-tracking research by Dr. Jakob Nielsen, a leading usability expert and one of the world’s most influential designers according to Business Week, users spend most of their attention of the left side of the screen.

Many web users spend as much as 69% of their time on the left side; people spend only 30% of their time viewing the right half. This is especially true for people who are culturally trained to read and write from left to right.

People Read Slower Through a Computer Screen

Dr. Nielsen’s study also found that people read 25% slower using a computer compared with reading on paper. Nielsen’s solution? Write 50% less. This sounds like a simplistic solution but it’s not.

Less text makes it easier for readers to concentrate. Having less material to consume makes it easier for them to judge, analyze and make sense of what they are reading.

Write less by using short, active sentences. Substitute a word for a phrase, as long as it doesn’t alter the meaning.

People Rarely Read, They Scan Instead

The same eye-tracking study revealed that less than 20% of content on an average web page is actually read. They pick out words and sentences or scan pages instead. Other studies offer a slightly generous figure at 28% of text content on a page.

Don’t let these facts discourage. They speak of how average web pages fare. You can actually help users read more. One of Nielsen’s usability test showed better results through improved usability, scannable content and objective copywriting.

Make it easier for readers to consume most of your content. Highlight keywords, use appropriate headings, write concise sentences and paragraphs, get to the point quickly, and utilize lists and bullet points.

First Impressions Form Quickly

It only takes 2.6 seconds for users to form their first impressions—from the moment their eyes land on a specific area of a page. That something specific can be a button, an image or a social media icon. It can by anything.

Research have shown that the better the first impression, the longer users stay on page. The point is simple. It’s to take really good care of the details to make a good impression.

Big Headlines Draw the Eye First

Dominant headlines, especially when placed in the upper left corner, typically draw the eyes first. In fact, they are also tend to capture attention faster than images.

Make the most out of your headlines. Make them meaningful to help your learners find the content they need easily. Keep them relevant, simple, concise and irresistible.

Important Stuff Comes First

How you order list or arrange content is crucial in keeping users engaged. Readers’ ability to focus and retain information are lower in the middle. But their attention and retention are highest in the beginning and end.

The way users scan and skim offers another explanation. People tend to scan the first and the last items—information which are likely to stay in their short-term memory. 

The “inverted pyramid” writing style seems to be a good fit for online readers. Structuring your screens this way means placing important information at the top (What's in for them?), then supporting it with the sentences that follow.  

Visuals can Enhance Readability

That is, as long as you’re using images strategically. By strategic, you have to carefully select every image you place on the screen. Every graphic element included has to relate or reinforce textual content. 

The more you can break down text, the easier it will be for learners to read. Images are perfect for this. People process visual information 60,000 fasters than text. 

Start by replacing long chunks of texts with relevant visuals. A well-researched and well-designed infographics is good. In fact, a Nielsen study finds users pay attention to “photos and other images that contain relevant information.” 

Whitespace Improves Readability and Comprehension

Whitespace, or having a generously spaced content, makes it easier for users to read and comprehend your material. This is why designers place a high value on whitespace. It keeps web pages free of clutter and offer readers more room to breathe. It directs their attention to important elements, show relationships between items and establish a pattern of hierarchy of content.

Studies, in fact found a 20-percent increase in comprehension due to effective use of whitespace. Make sure an ample amount of space surrounds the text. 

Choice of Fonts Affects Readability Too

Readability is influenced by another factors. White space is one. Typography is another. The size and type of font you select has an effect on how your readers takes in your content. 

Designers, in fact, insist on using sans-serif fonts on computer screens. These fonts are much more legible on screens with 100 pixels per inch or less. Popular sans-serif fonts are Arial and Verdana.  Also, keep in mind that the recommended font size for on-screen reading should be no smaller than 10 points and no larger than 14 points. 

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About Karla Gutierrez

Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT.

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