Posted to Volacci's blog on March 17th, 2011

The Scanner Eyes: Find Out Why This Title Is Too Long and Would Scare Away Readers Even If You Say Something They Want to Hear!


In performing conversion optimization analysis for our clients, the first thing that is always in the forefront of my mind is the nature of human eyes. What is the nature of human eyes? Well, think about this: as you read this very sentence, you are not looking at each letter individually. You are not even looking at each word! Average readers skip over letters and words and instead, their eyes scan parts of the sentence, jumping from one point to the next. And yet, somehow even though we do this we know everything that has been written without even reading everything!

Don’t believe me? Try reading this:

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, olny taht the frist and lsat ltteres are at the rghit pcleas. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by ilstef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

No problem understanding that mess, right? That's because of context. Context allows us to "fill in the blanks" and decode the message among the noise. After reading that paragraph, you are certain the word "cow" does not show up at all, despite the fact that no actual words were shown. This is because the word "cow" doesn't make sense given the context of what you were reading.

Now try reading this:

T      h e          a        p         p         l          e       
do s n ‘ t f a l l f a r
f r o m t h e
t r e e .

That probably took a little longer to read than it should have. This is because the letters were so spaced apart from each other, that we couldn’t actually ignore them like we do when we read normally.

Now read this quote:

After reading the
the sentence, you are
now aware that the
the human brain
often does not
inform you that the
the word ‘the’ has
been repeated twice
every time.

Some of you will notice the duplication, but the majority of people do not even notice this gaffe! (For the ones who noticed, you are careful readers. For the ones who didn’t notice, your brains are the average scanner, capable of taking in the idea without reading the entire thing.)

So how do you apply the nature of the eye to web design and conversion optimization?

1. Remember that things on the page must flow “eye-wise”
By “eye-wise”, I mean that the flow of the page must utilize the eye’s “scanning” nature to lead focus to the things you want them to focus on. There are two oft-mentioned layout patterns for websites that do this: the F-pattern and the Z-pattern. The F-pattern has a layout that has a left-side navigation or column and things move from that left-side horizontally to the right. The Z-pattern has a set of horizontal left-to-right rows of flow that cause the eye to scan the page in a zig-zag pattern, eventually leading to something on the right.

2. Create “scannable” headlines
For instance, that was a “scannable” headline. It was short (I have a rule to try and keep headlines six words or less) and it didn’t contain strange, unheard-of words. Even better: having short words and still being able to convey your message. You have less than 1 second to capture their attention, and most people don’t read more than the first two words of the headline, so make it count!

3. Keep your copy and paragraphs short
By “copy”, I mean the text that fills up your page. This is especially important for home pages and does not apply to websites where users go to to read (e.g. Wikipedia, Cliffs Notes, etc.). I also recommend that you keep paragraphs between 3-4 moderate to short sentences. 99% of your site’s visitors will not read even a third of everything on your site, so it’s best to get your message across in as concise a way as possible.

Remember: When designing your site, one of the most important things you can do is to keep “scan-ability” in mind.