Help Their Eyes Find It

    August 8, 2003

Every one of your visitors is barraged daily with massive quantities of information. So are you. So am I. How do we cope? We become remarkably selective in our consumption of the stuff. Some folks say this is a function of impatience – I figure it’s a basic survival skill.

You’ve got a number of strategies available that allow you to streamline the information you present to your visitors: there’re your navigation schemes, your qualifying schemes, there’s locating site elements where your visitors expect to find them. Then there’s designing for scanning and skimming.

We’ve talked about this before, so I’ll spare you the exposition here. Suffice it to say, enough evidence suggests that if folks read online (and Jakob Nielsen says 79% of them don’t1), they read “shallow but wide” and pay attention to text before they look at pictures.2

So how are you going to grab their attention and communicate your message as quickly as possible? Try some of these tactics.


Headings are extremely important online. They are the points of reference on your Web page. They are also creative design elements. Headings create extra white space that allows your visitor to visually organize the information you are presenting. Look to print media for examples you might be able to adapt to your Web site.3

  • Keep main headings short enough to fit on one line. Main headings will define the message on your page.
  • Use subheadings to continue, expand and visually separate your information. Subheadings also help a visitor more effectively orient herself when scrolling down long pages.
  • If headings echo your navigation, make sure the words are exactly the same. This provides clarity and consistency for the visitor.
  • Use headings as design features: different colors, different styles or sizes of type will help attract your visitor to the information, as well as help her scan for it.
  • Consider indenting text from the left margin of the header. This creates additional white space that helps set off the heading and adds a greater feeling of balance to your page.
  • Read just your headings. If they were the only words a visitor read on this page, would they communicate the basic point?
  • Pull Quotes

    Pull quotes can be more than graphic fillers. They help capture a visitor’s attention, illuminate your key points and add style to your Web page. They also can help break up large blocks of information to aid scanning.4

  • To create effective pull quotes, identify the key phrases in your copy and highlight them at various places in your layout.
  • If you use several pull quotes, present them in the order of your message, then read them in order to see if they, independent of your text, make your point.
  • Not everyone thinks pull quotes are brilliant solutions for scanners and skimmers. There is certainly one downside to graphic pull quotes: they generally don’t format properly in non-graphical browsers (such as Lynx text-only browser). In text-only incarnations, these graphic slices of text wind up embedded in the regular copy, so they look and read out of place. If you plan on using pull quotes, it’s a kindness to provide text-only versions as well.5

    Highlighting Text

    Within the paragraphs of your copy, some words and phrases are more important than others. When your visitor has made the decision to pay more attention to your copy, she’ll most likely skim it before truly committing to reading (if she even gets to a thorough reading). Highlighting or bolding is a way to distinguish the essence of your message.

  • Don’t highlight everything; then you’re just back to Square One.
  • Don’t highlight just for emphasis, as in “I really mean don’t highlight just for emphasis.” Highlight for critical information.
  • Once you’ve highlighted the words, read them as if they were the only text on the page. Do they develop and carry the message?
  • Embedded Links

    Text hyperlinks give your visitors quick access to the content they want without making them figure out your navigation system or requiring them to click through multiple layers of your Web site. When they are used well, embedded links not only capture attention, they keep your visitors actively engaged in your conversion process by keeping them within the active window.

  • Make the link as short and concise and intuitive as possible.
  • It is important to include key words, or trigger words, as part of the link. “Users expect to find ‘trigger words’ in the links. A trigger word is a word (or phrase) that causes the user to click. When the trigger words match the user’s goals, they find those words right away and the links make them more confident that they are going to find their content.”6
  • Make sure you deliver on the implicit promise of the link. If you embed a text link for “methodology” and that delivers the visitor to your page on “services,” you lose credibility.
  • Big Picture Guidelines

    Gerry McGovern produced this list of scan reading design guidelines, and they are well worth paying attention to (quoted in entirety):7

  • Maximize familiarity: Structure your website in a way that is familiar and consistent. This will mean that the reader has less to learn and can more easily focus on the core content. For example, most people expect to find the ‘Home’ link in the top left of the page. Placing it anywhere else makes it more difficult for them to scan.
  • Design from shallow to deep: A homepage should contain short text that brings the reader deeper into the website. As they link deeper you can provide more detailed content.
  • Classify well: Choosing classification terms that are readily understandable to the reader is crucial.
  • Write punchy headings and summaries: If the heading is not descriptive and compelling, the reader will likely leave.
  • Be direct: Be short. Get to the point. Explain in precise, simple language exactly what you have to say to the reader.
  • Don’t waste the reader’s time: Remember, the one word that best describes the scan reader is: impatient.
  • Jakob Nielsen reminds us that online we can communicate our points only if our text content:8

  • is broken up by headings
  • is shaped into lots of punchy, single idea paragraphs
  • puts key phrases in bold face
  • bullets key points
  • avoids jargon and rhetoric
  • is straightforward, and
  • is short.
  • When it comes to scanning and skimming, as in all matters business-related, always keep in mind that your mileage may vary. Maybe one of these suggestions just won’t work for your application. So think of this stuff in the broader sense of principles rather than rules, then reach for your own brand of scannable opportunity!

    1 “How Users Read on the Web.” Jakob Nielsen. Alertbox. October 1, 1977. 
    2 Stanford-Poynter Eye-Tracking Study. 
    3 Linda Moore.
    4 Linda Moore.
    5 Adrian Holovaty. 
    6 “Getting Confidence from Lincoln.” UIE tips. Jared Spool. April 25, 2003. 
    7 “How you can design for the scan reader.” Gerry McGovern. April 29, 2002.  8 “Ever Wondered What Your Users Looked at First?” Sitepoint. 

    First appeared at GrokDotCom

    Future Now, Inc. is a marketing boutique focused on helping clients convert their website’s traffic into leads, customers and sales by applying persuasion architecture, copywriting, usability and web analytics to design, redesign and optimize websites and other online marketing efforts. Future Now provides its unique and proprietary processes and expertise with a broad range of middle-market B2B and B2C clients nationwide by providing training, consulting, speaking, assessment services and publishing.