08. General reading principles

You don’t read the same way on a computer screen than on paper. Besides being obvious, this fundamental input must be detailed. The goal : understanding how web users act when reading an online article and therefore being able to write for online reading.

Reading orientation and eye tracking

Let us start with American researcher Jakob Nielsen’s lesson. He’s been studying for years how web users act. On the Internet, says Nielsen, readers don’t actually read articles, they scan them. It takes them 10 to 20 seconds to get an idea of the quality of the page they’re browsing. If they’re not convinced, they’ll go elsewhere.

Nielsen uses an eye tracking system : the reader, he says, scans the page, slides from one paragraph to another, avoiding ads and blocks of texts. His brain jumps from an idea to another before making the decision to actually read the article.

On the Internet, readers’ eyes have an F-shaped reading style, from the top to the bottom (I’m browsing) and left to right (I’m interested).


Three websites studied by Jakob Nielsen. Red zones are the most read, then the yellow ones, and the blue ones.

 This reading is constantly interrupted, by a video, a slideshow or audio. 79% web users read “diagonally” and only 16% read every word. That shows just of different the meaning of “reading” is on the Web. Furthermore, with all these constraints, onscreen reading is 25% slower than on paper. Which suppose to work on shorter formats.

On a positive note : if reading is more random, the reader’s attention is much more focused, because he’s actively looking for information – other media grant him a passive status. Therefore, by mixing astutely techniques, a journalist can provide enriched content.

 Flea-jumping browsing

Let us pay particular attention to this. On a screen, a reader’s eye goes very fast, and only stops when something interesting catches his attention. That’s how flea-jumping browsing works: just like a flea, the reader’s brain goes, more or less chaotically, from content to content, from a page to another, seemingly without any logic.

To catch the reader’s attention you must :

  •  Guide him towards your content thanks to good search engine referencing, because if your article is badly flagged, no one will get there.
  •  Keep his attention fixed on your article/content/environment, by using appropriate writing techniques and multiplying entry points.