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Eyes Are Drawn to Links

Users scan web pages looking for clues as to what the page is about and where to go next. They use sign posts, such as headings and bolded keywords, as shortcuts to information. Hyperlinks also attract users’ attention and need to stand out, both visually and contextually. Underlined blue text is still the most obvious visual indicator of a link. Easy-to-understand links make the page more scannable because they provide both information about what is on the page and an idea of where to go next.

The following example from one of our eyetracking studies is typical of how people read on the web. The participant was asked a broad task: Find out about Genentech and what it does. In the first few moments on the Genentech Oncology page, the user scanned the first two paragraphs following an F-pattern, but then switched to looking primarily at the links. The links made it easy for the user to navigate to additional information about a topic, but also acted as headings for each paragraph, informing the user what each section is about.

Eyetracking data of participant scanning the Oncology page on the Gegentech website Web

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Too many websites miss opportunities to engage readers. The problem is often not the content, but its discoverability: it’s about visitors not knowing more of it exists.

Many people arrive at websites by clicking on links from search engines or outside sources. Their initial intent is to get to that one article that answers their information needs and search engines make it easy for people to leave after a quick one-page dip. However, even goal-oriented users can be swayed to browse if they notice links that match their interests.

If your site analytics show a high bounce rate, it may be time to evaluate how well your site provides readers with relevant content. Many factors — such as credibility and content quality — contribute to pageviews and bounce rates. However, evaluating related links might be a good first step.

Global navigation is crucial for providing one-click access to the homepage and a simple overview of the site’s broader offerings: it will help those users who want to see completely different things than their initial question. But most users retain a sufficiently one-track mind to be more easily tempted by narrow offerings that are closely tied to their current interest.

Unfortunately, users often overlook related

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As part of our FAQ report Strategic Design for Frequently Asked Questions we reviewed the FAQs at 23 big and small organizations to help derive design guidelines for how best to present this important content. The Mayday organization, devoted to election-campaign reform in the United States, provided an interesting before-and-after example for our FAQ analysis and guidelines. We didn’t have anything to do with the marked improvement in the “after” example, but it helps illustrate some of the important design attributes of good FAQ usability.

MayDay.us original FAQ
The purpose of the original MayDay.us FAQ was to dismiss objections so potential donors could feel comfortable before donating. It did that very well, because the organization raised more than $7.8 million. A video breaks up the stream of text halfway down the page, but careful reading is required in order to extract meaning from text. (The enlarged detail shows the end of the questions and beginning of the answers.)

Good Aspects

The FAQ uses video to explain and to break up the page visually. Well-chosen variations in the visual aspects of a page attract attention, anchor the eye, and support scannability.

The FAQ is constantly updated with new

The most effective web content is objective and neutral.  Vague business terms, marketing language, and fluffy words are too hard for users to understand. However, writing clear, understandable copy is challenging. It’s much easier for writers to use the internal jargon and industry terms that are regularly used inside the company. Unfortunately, users are often stumped by these convoluted words and have a difficult time extracting meaning from the content. Users shouldn’t have to interpret content; they should be able to easily understand it.

This article offers tips for writing copy that focuses on users—and not on the company or organization.

Focus on the Benefits of Using the Product or Service, not the Features

Lists of service or product features don’t attract readers, because the terms and phrases used to describe them aren’t easily understandable—especially if the feature names include branded terms. Users want to know what the product or service will do for them, and they don’t care about the fancy name.

For example, a description of a hiking boot on the Merrell website is littered with features that fail to describe the benefits in a way that will appeal to potential buyers, including:

The benefits of

Given that users spend almost no time visiting the average web page, how do you get people to actually read your website pages?

Emphasize facts. There's so much blah-blah on the web that straight talk stands out.

Two of our studies offer telling examples of how users search for facts: one study tested journalists, and the other tested people using investor relation (IR) pages on corporate websites.

Journalists: The Ultimate Fact Seekers

When journalists used corporate websites in our tests, they were very interested in finding facts. Sometimes these facts were offbeat, eliciting an “I didn’t know that” response. Sometimes facts were as simple as a CEO’s age.

Journalists typically scanned past lines of text that seemed too marketing-oriented. They were always wary (and sometimes cynical) about marketing information:

“We need to characterize the companies, not just say what they say. I look for facts.... You can smell it if they are trying to cover a bad fact.”

On the Fidelity site, a journalist liked the simple facts about the funds because they provided context for his readers:

“I like this part: ‘We have 290 funds.’ That’s a fact.... I would print this out. I do like facts.”

A journalist was also impressed with how the Wal-Mart site explained

Having users compare, contrast, and choose something from a set of options is one of the highest-value activities performed on the Internet. If people choose correctly, a sale or other desired action may follow. Wrong choice, and you’ll either fail to close the deal or have a dissatisfied customer.

In e-commerce, product choices are typically offered on category pages, sometimes using special comparison tools or overview tables. A classic design mistake is to give overviews that list all product attributes as an undifferentiated mess, even if most values are the same for all or most items.

Rather than treating all features the same, you can help users make the right choices by following two key guidelines:

  • If options differ on only a few attributes, highlight those features in a comparison table or move them to the top of the list. Sometimes, you can achieve additional clarity by merging cells across columns for attributes that are the same for all products.
  • If there are many differences but only a few are truly important, highlight these key differences to focus users' attention on the things that matter. You can also use progressive disclosure to give details on minor issues to the people who need them —

Putting aside direct transactions (such as online banking), user behavior in relation to Internet content is paradoxical:

  • Users go to websites for information.
  • Users scarcely read anything during an average website visit.

This second point has been well-supported by tons of research over the years:

  • In 1997, the world's first study of how users read web content summarized the findings in two words: they don't. Instead of carefully reading information, users typically scan it.
  • In 2006, eyetracking research found that users frequently scan website prose in an F-pattern, focusing on words at the top or left side of the page, while barely glancing at words that appeared elsewhere.
  • Recent research quantified this finding: given the duration of an average page view, users have time to read at most 28% of the words on the page.

Such research findings have led us to study nanocontent issues, such as how to cram maximal information into the first two words of headlines and links.

Being concise and frontloading keywords with high information scent remain key web-writing guidelines. Still, users sometimes do read more than the bare minimum, and we wanted to find out why.

When People Read

To investigate this phenomenon, we analyzed 1.5 million eyetracking fixations from hundreds of sites. The very

Web users are task oriented and want to satisfy their needs quickly. Deciding on which category or link to click on requires cognitive effort. For every page, people must review and compare the choices and decide which one will most likely produce the desired effect. This process can be exhausting, especially if each decision causes doubt. The anguish of being wrong often leads to fatigue and frustration, which in turn causes people to abandon websites. Clever category names cause doubt and hinder site exploration. The more confident people feel about their decisions, the more likely they are to engage with your website.

Good link names help people quickly and accurately predict what they’ll get before they click on a link. Descriptive category names have a higher chance of being discovered and clicked on than clever made-up words or internal jargon because people understand them. Because website designers are usually domain experts, they’re familiar with internal jargon and sometimes forget that their audiences are not. It’s easy to accidentally assume that internal vernacular is known to everyone in the outside world. Cleaning up unhelpful labels helps creates a better user experience and can positively impact people’s perception of your organization.

Five tips for

Grammar rules exist to help us communicate clear and meaningful messages. Many grammatical rules are sacred and should never be violated, such as misusing homonyms and idioms, or choosing the wrong word (e.g., “there” instead of “their”). Such mistakes make us sound incompetent (when we’re not) and damage credibility. Writing for online is different than writing for print:

  • Web users are often action oriented, "leaning forward" in the hunt for answers to their current question, rather than leaning back to absorb a good book.
  • Web content is distributed among multiple locations — often on separate websites — whereas print content is usually delivered as a single object with no separate navigation other than turning the page.
  • Interactive users read very few words on most web pages, because they're impatient and already have their mouse-finger itching to move to the next page.
  • People can be confused or misled when a search lands them on a web page divorced from the context provided if they had read the rest of the site. Elaborate writing styles take too long to set newly-arrived users straight.

Some grammar rules are worth breaking if you have good reason. But before I give you my list of top rules to break, it’s important

The amount of time a person is willing to spend on a site varies widely depending on their circumstances, the type of problem that they’re trying to solve, and their individual characteristics. Some people are naturally inclined to pore over every last word, and even the least detail-oriented person tends to spend more time when she is especially passionate about something, or if it involves significant financial or personal consequences.

Those circumstances exist, but a far more frequent scenario is for a user to arrive at a painstakingly designed page—which a team of designers may have spent weeks fine-tuning to fit in valuable, meaningful content—and spare it only a cursory glance before clicking through to the next page. (The average page visit lasts less than a minute—but many are 10 seconds or less.)


When faced with a decision, we can either take the time to find the best answer, or we can decide to settle for a ‘good-enough’ answer, and get on with our lives. Psychologists call this latter strategy satisficing, a combination of the terms ‘satisfy’ and ‘suffice.’

Definition: Satisficing means settling for something we know may not be the best possible choice, but that at least meets our

Last month's article Break Grammar Rules on Websites for Clarity provided 3 specific guidelines. Today's article provides 3 more guidelines, thus, the numbering in this article begins at 4.

This article was published as an April Fools' Day hoax, and does not contain real recommendations.

Break Rule #4: Avoid Using the Word Very

Third-grade English teachers gave the word very a very bad name with their assignments to write essays that include a particular number of words. Some pupils abused very in order to achieve the required word count in their homework. For example:

My summer vacation was very good. My very close family made the very long drive across the very beautiful and very, very varied United States. My father did most of the driving, very fast, which made us very, very anxious. But, overall it was a very, very, very good trip and summer vacation.

It’s unfortunate that today’s professional communicators avoid very because of this juvenile misuse of the word. Very is a helpful adjective and adverb, and it can quickly and easily magnify the meaning of so many verbs and nouns. We should use very very much more on our websites today.

Let’s consider an example on the Green Mountain Coffee website.

An accordion menu is a vertically stacked list of headers that can be clicked to reveal or hide content associated with them. It is one of many ways you can expose content to users in a progressive manner. Allowing people to have control over the content by expanding it or deferring it for later lets them decide what to read and what to ignore. Giving people control is #3 on the list of the top heuristics for usable design. In theory, this concept sounds reasonably human centered.

jqueryui.com: This is an example of an accordion. In theory, it is a useful way to present content. By allowing people to control what content they see and what remains hidden, the information feels less overwhelming.

There are other advantages to applying accordions to long, content-rich pages:

  • Collapsing the page minimizes scrolling.
  • The headings serve as a mini-IA of the page. This allows users to form a mental model of the information available.
  • Hiding (some of) the content can make the web page appear less daunting.
  • Accordions can be a better alternative to within-page links, which are problematic because they break people’s mental model for hypertext links. People expect clicking a link will load

As we've said before, the first law of e-commerce is that if the user cannot find the product, then the user cannot buy it. But finding relevant product pages is only the first step down the purchase funnel. While many sites have improved their information architecture and navigation, many product pages are still dismal.

Product pages need to do more than provide an image, a cursory product description, and an Add to cart button: they need to sell the product. To do so, product pages must convince or assure users that this is the item that meets their needs. Yet many product pages fail to do this.

When users rely on a website's product information, they do not get the chance to touch the product, read its packaging, try it on, or ask a salesperson a question before purchasing. Clear and descriptive product pages are essential.

In our e-commerce studies, we found that 20% of the overall task failures in the study — times when users failed to successfully complete a purchase when asked to do so — could be attributed to incomplete or unclear product information. Leaving shoppers' questions unanswered can derail a sale or even worse, make shoppers abandon not just

What do these instructions mean: “clean a kettlebell to the racked position”? They have nothing to do with polishing the kitchen copper. They also don’t relate to hanging heavy items in church towers.

In fact, these instructions are the first step of various exercises you can perform with a heavy metal ball with a handle (a kettlebell). Searching for the phrase will dig up plenty of instructional videos showing you how this is done.

Usually, a key guideline for writing digital copy is to use simple language: familiar words and short sentences. To reach a broad consumer audience, write at an 8th grade reading level. But what if you’re not targeting everybody, but have a narrow audience for your, say, B2B site? In that case the advice changes.

Simple Writing for Advanced Readers

Even for specialized audiences it’s still best to write as simple as possible. Even highly educated people don’t want to struggle to read your site. You do not impress anybody by spouting highfalutin words or complex sentence structures that require careful parsing. People don’t pay close attention to web content.

In particular, users take around 10 seconds to decide whether a web page is worth their time at all. So if you

Any broken promise, large or small, chips away at trust and credibility. A suitor asks you on a date but doesn’t show up. A parent says she’ll play a game but never does. A link on a website says Products & services but opens a registration page instead. These damaged promises make a person feel baited, annoyed, disrespected, disappointed, and duped. In short, nothing good. On the other hand, when a link does fulfill what it professes, people move through the site seamlessly and confidently.

Links Should Stand Alone

When conducting eyetracking research, I often observe how people attempt to scan the minimum amount of content that gets them enough information to proceed. Humans are programmed to seek efficiency and minimize the interaction cost: They economize on their fixations (how many things they look directly at). Often they scan first only the text and those UI elements that they believe will help them to quickly understand content and to progress in their task.

In one frequently-observed page-scanning pattern, the Spotted Pattern, people scan in a seemingly random manner, that, when analyzed carefully, reveals that they look at items that seem to relate to what they want, or that are perceived as important or


Frequently Asked Questions (F.A.Q.s, FAQs or Q&As), when done well, deliver a lot of value not only to your website visitor but also to your organization. The FAQ is a mature information format that orginated in 1982 and has evolved along with the Internet, first in email and then in newsgroups. On the web, FAQs continue to improve, with the addition of hypertext links, visual design, databases, and analytics. Encountering familiar tools and structures helps website visitors walk up and use them without having to spend much thought on figuring out how.

If you spend too much time and money on website email or customer-service calls, or if people have questions before they can buy what you’re selling, you might benefit a lot financially by addressing the bulk of those questions in a systematic way on the web.

Countering Objections to FAQs

Good Websites Don’t Need FAQs; We Already Have Search

Search is a frequently tried FAQ alternative, but search is rarely enough. The big problem with a search-only approach is that your vocabulary and your users' vocabulary probably talk past each other. (The "verbal disagreement phenomenon.") Regrettably, most people are also not skilled at forming effective search queries. Plus, site search rarely works

A headline is often the first piece of content people read. And often it is the ONLY thing people read. If you want your encounters with people to be successful, make sure to write solid headlines.

Have you ever tried to retell a story you read only to realize the details are fuzzy because you had only read the headline? This is a sign of a memorable headline. Good headlines entice readers and are critical to the success of your website.

Below are 5 tips for writing engaging headlines:

1. Make sure the headline works out of context.

We often think of headlines as being connected with the associated story. However, on the web, headlines usually appear out of context in places such as search results, social-media streams, blog posts, and news feeds. Headlines must be strong and descriptive, especially when standing alone, stripped of supporting content.

Can you guess what the heading below refers to?

New times call for new decisions

The headline contains low information scent—that is, few cues to suggest what the story is about. People rely on visual and textual cues to perceive the usefulness of the content. They don’t spend time making inferences and trying to figure out items that don’t make immediate

The One Thing You Should Do

Based on several studies, we’ve generated numerous guidelines on how to present company information on corporate websites and in the About Us sections to increase trust and transparency. However, in this article, I focus on one major guideline to increase perceptions of transparency and improve your relationship with users. If you can do only one thing, what should it be? The answer: Provide key information on major About Us pages.

In usability studies, we observe people peeking at top-level pages for answers to foundational questions. Make sure that your site passes the first impressions test by answering top questions succinctly. People are more inclined to engage further once they’ve determined you’re worth the effort.

Start telling your story the moment people land on your site. At a minimum, write brief summaries emphasizing a few impressive facts. As people click through the main pages they should gain a fuller understanding of who you are, what you do, and why you exist. Ask yourself, “If users only skim the top pages in About Us, are they getting a coherent story?”

In many cases, what new users need most are great highlights written in a scannable format. Summaries are appealing because

While a website’s visual design is how your company looks online, the site’s writing is how your company sounds online. Tone of voice and great content are crucial for communicating on the Internet. Nevertheless, the best copywriting is for nothing if users don’t read the text.

As with other areas of user experience, content has to survive a cost–benefit analysis on the part of users:

  • Cost: how much hassle and pain do I have to suffer on this website?
  • Benefits: What’s in it for me, what will I gain if I read this information?

Definitely provide benefits to users. Why else have a website? But you also need to reduce the barriers to using it (i.e., lower the cost). For online copy, the barriers to use fall into 3 categories: legibility, readability, and comprehension, each of which is defined and discussed below.


Definition: Legibility is the lowest-level consideration in content usability: it’s whether people are able to see, distinguish, and recognize the characters and words in your text. Legibility is thus mainly determined by visual design, specifically typography.

The main guidelines to ensure legibility are:

  • Use a reasonably large default font size and allow users to change the font size. Tiny text dooms legibility — and remember

Some trends are subtler than others. Much like low-contrast text, the use of Learn More as a standalone link label has been quietly trending. The web now has an abundance of links with this generic label, largely tacked on to information of secondary or tertiary importance. (A Google search finds 1.4 billion instances of this term, though some admittedly might be from proper use of the term in general content.) Typically, these links are placed after a short paragraph that briefly introduces a topic, feature, or service, so that the Learn More points the visitor to the detail page. Usually, these links are not the main calls to action on the page, which partly explains why this copywriting detail doesn’t get as much attention or A/B testing as other calls to action.

Most of you have surely seen this pattern. Below is an example of what we’re talking about:

'Learn More' link as a secondary call to action
Smartthings.com: As a standalone label, Learn More lacks descriptive keywords to help users understand what to expect from the next page. 

The proliferation of Learn More links is likely mobile driven: mobile-optimized sites are getting better at deferring secondary content.