In the past five years I’ve spent a lot of time watching people use the Web, and the thing that has struck me most is the difference between how we think people use Web sites and how they actually use them.

When we’re creating sites, we act as though people are going to pore over each page, reading our finely crafted text, figuring out how we’ve organized things, and weighing their options before deciding which link to click.

What they actually do most of the time (if we’re lucky) is glance at each new page, scan some of the text, and click on the first link that catches their interest or vaguely resembles the thing they’re looking for. There are usually large parts of the page that they don’t even look at.

We’re thinking “great literature” (or at least “product brochure”), while the user’s reality is much closer to “billboard going by at 60 miles an hour.”

What we design for vs. The reality

As you might imagine, it’s a little more complicated than this, and it depends on the kind of page, what the user is trying to do, how much of a hurry she’s in, and so on. But this simplistic view is much closer to reality than most of us imagine.

It makes sense that we picture a more rational, attentive user when we’re designing pages. It’s only natural to assume that everyone uses the Web the same way we do, and—like everyone else—we tend to think that our own behavior is much more orderly and sensible than it really is.

If you want to design effective Web pages, though, you have to learn to live with three facts about real-world Web use.

Fact of life #1: We don’t read pages. We scan them.

One of the very few well-documented facts about Web use is that people tend to spend very little time reading most Web pages.1 Instead, we scan (or skim) them, looking for words or phrases that catch our eye.

The exception, of course, is pages that contain documents like news stories, reports, or product descriptions. But even then, if the document is longer than a few paragraphs, we’re likely to print it out—since it’s easier and faster to read on paper than on a screen.

Why do we scan?

  • We’re usually in a hurry. Much of our Web use is motivated by the desire to save time. As a result, Web users tend to act like sharks: they have to keep moving, or they’ll die. We just don’t have the time to read any more than necessary.
  • We know we don’t need to read everything. On most pages, we’re really only interested in a fraction of what’s on the page. We’re just looking for the bits that match our interests or the task at hand, and the rest of it is irrelevant. Scanning is how we find the relevant bits.
  • We’re good at it. We’ve been scanning newspapers, magazines, and books all our lives to find the parts we’re interested in, and we know that it works.

The net effect is a lot like Gary Larson’s classic Far Side cartoon about the difference between what we say to dogs and what they hear. In the cartoon, the dog (named Ginger) appears to be listening intently as her owner gives her a serious talking-to about staying out of the grabage. But from the dog’s point of view, all he’s saying is “blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah GINGER blah blah blah.”

What we see when we look at a Web page depends on what we have in mind, but it’s usually just a fraction of what’s on the page.