Information, Technology & Consulting

The shape of an F

By Susan Lee
Director of Web Services at Dartmouth

As a college student some time ago I was certain a speed reading class would improve my ability to consume enormous amounts of information in no time at all. We were taught to scan horizontally across the page and then drop down via a diagonal, repeating a pattern of quick scans down the page to piece together concepts. Although I didn’t end up speed reading my way through technical science textbooks and English literature, I did find the skill useful for browsing newspapers and magazines. It worked well for tight columns of text where the overlapping-reverse-7 scan pattern did indeed gather facts quickly. Surface conversations about current events were made easy but the heavy lifting of understanding still required deep immersion into text.

Every day, we are studying ourselves and how we interact with the internet, leading to the emerging field of user behavior, user experience, and interface design. For web pages, a strong pattern of browsing has taken shape as the letter “F." In the short 3-5 seconds a person will typically spend on a web page before she moves on, the eyes will quickly scan horizontally across the page anchoring their gaze on the left and right end of the top bar of the “F," then quickly pass down the left stem, and finally hit the center bar of the letter shape.

What can one possibly understand with so little effort?

We are taking a sniff of the page with our eyes and, in a blink, assessing the information scent. If our attention isn't captured in that snapshot, another more interesting site is just a google search and a click away. Mental processing at this pace is standard human behavior: the ability to take stock, evaluate, and act on information quickly has made us a highly adaptive species.

What does this mean for those of us who specialize in digital communications?

Dartmouth's new website templates take user behavior into consideration in their interface design. The web is constantly changing—requiring that progressive improvements and adaptions are part of the process too. Different from the print publications we are transitioning away from, digital communications is developing its own set of best practices which the Web Services team is here to help with as we work together to move institutional websites into new design, structure, and functionality.

There are basic guidelines to follow when structuring content on the page.

  • Know your audience: your website is not for you
  • Use simple, clear language
  • Keep your navigation intuitive and short; under 7 main navigation items
  • Use images strategically and consider how much information can be conveyed well with carefully selected and placed imagery
  • Lead your audience deeper into more complex content with smaller consumable chunks
  • Structure your pages well by breaking down long text into sections with headings

Making your site search-friendly is important, but once visitors arrive at your door, make their experience more welcoming by providing a clean and uncluttered path through your content.

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