Does the F-shaped pattern for reading web content still apply?

Lesley Hanes | January 27, 2016

Knowledge of the F-shaped pattern for reading web content has long helped web writers to put key words where people notice them the most: at the beginning of headings, sub-headings, and paragraphs.

Web technology and design has changed a lot since Nielsen Norman Group discovered this reading pattern in 2006. So does it apply to today’s ubiquitous device — the smartphone?

How people read passages of text on smartphones

A study by the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (GRCAI) looked at how people read passages of text on smartphones. In Reading and Estimating Gaze on Smartphones, the researchers tested different layouts and paragraph lengths using eye gaze technology.

Their findings confirmed that the F-shaped pattern was present. As you can see in the images below, the left-hand side of the screen still dominates the gaze pattern.

Image, smartphone screen and heatmap showing user eyetracking.

Reading pattern on smartphones.

The GRCAI researchers also found three different types of readers among their participants:

Participants used the left-hand side to align text while reading, especially those who read a block at a time. The researchers noted that some people switch between these different reading styles while they are reading.

Rumours of the F-pattern’s death have been greatly exaggerated

Some commentators are using an image and quote from a Google study to claim that the F-pattern doesn’t apply to mobile devices. However, the research paper from the study tells a different story.

In Towards Better Measurement of Attention and Satisfaction in Mobile Search, the researchers were interested in the effect of ‘answer-like’ search results that come from Knowledge Graph and Google Instant. Because people can get answers from these kinds of search results without clicking a link, the click-through rate is a less accurate measure of search relevance and user satisfaction.

To measure these two things, the researchers used eye-gaze technology, observation, and user interviews. The eye-gaze technology showed where people were looking on their smartphone screens. The researchers found that ‘… 68 percent of attention is given to the top half of the screen and 86 percent of attention is given to the top two-thirds of the screen’.

They also found differences in where users focus their attention on mobile phones compared with desktop devices. However, the researchers don’t say that their results extend to other types of pages, such as content pages. Their findings were for search result pages only.

The F-pattern lives on — for now

Many web experts still endorse the F-pattern. The research that I found, though little, seems to back their position. So for now, we can probably say that the F-pattern still holds for most web content, no matter what device is being used.

Be prepared for change though. The GRCAI researchers are looking into combining eye-tracking technology and artificial intelligence to ‘allow text to know if and how it is being read’. Such technology could make text responsive to us and change our online reading experiences and patterns.

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