F-Pattern in Reading Digital Content

The pattern, also known as the f shaped scanning pattern, is an approach people take to reading on the Web. We observe people reading this way when we do eye tracking research during which we use technology, which enables us to see what people are fixating on, what they’re looking at as they read on the Web in action. The pattern appears to look like the letter F, so a person begins reading on the left side of a column of text and as they read, they move to the right and then they move back to the left. And when they move to the right, they’ll read a little bit less and they move back to the left and read a little bit less and a little bit less. And it ends up appearing to be the capital letter F roughly.

We also see the pattern on mobile devices, but it’s smaller and in languages. When people read from right to left like Arabic, we also see the F pattern, but it’s reversed.

So why does the F pattern happen? It happens because people are trying to minimize the work they need to do and maximize the benefit they get from that work for eye tracking. That means they’re trying to economize on the number of fixations that they do on a page and learn the most that they can from the content that they actually do. Look at the page layout also plays a major role and whether people scan in the F pattern. If we present a wall of text to users that has no formatting and isn’t written for the web, they’re going to find their own path through that text. And we can do things to make it much easier for people to scan text, for example, use chunking of text, use bullets and more important than anything, use headings and subheadings within the text and make those headings look different from normal text larger, a different color, bolder, a different typeface. Any of these things can work. And with that, users are able to scan to the headings and decide if those words are things that they’re interested in. And if they are, they’ll read the normal text below it, and if not, the read to the next heading. And that’s a different pattern that we see people revealing when they read on the Web. And I like to call that one the layer cake pattern. I was hungry.

When I name that one, it resembles a layer cake with the frosting and the cake. So layer cake is a good pattern. F pattern is one that can and should be avoided.

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