Applying design principles to get people to read your content

It’s a good thing I actually read this article, “People Don’t Read, They Scan,” because I was rewarded with a most excellent conclusion that tied all of the design principles and examples together. Many of the design (color) choices for this site (black background, tan text, red text for links, and white text for headings) were very distracting – perhaps making it easier to scan but definitely not easier to read.

Part 1 talked all about the Gestalt principle (the whole is greater than its parts), which was never immediately tied to the main premise about scanning information. Part 1 was very long and filled with great examples that showed each of the 5 ideas (proximity, similarity, figure-ground, common fate, and closure), but again, it was very long and I must say that I started to skim or speed read some of this information, because I was anxious to get to the idea of scanning instead of reading.

As a tangent, I am probably splitting hairs here, but scanning suggests not reading at all, where as skimming suggests reading quickly or superficially, which I personally think comes in to play here. I think people use all three in a cycle — scan, read, skim — and in any order, to get to what they want. I certainly did in this article.

Part 2 was finally about scanning instead of reading. This section was very short, which surprised me since it was the main premise of the article. It mainly presented a list of data points or facts gleaned from other articles about users’ behavior of scanning instead of reading.

Part 3 delved into actual scanning patterns offering up 4 design ideas: rule of thirds (where you place areas of interest along a tic tac toe grid that divides the image into thirds, or 9 squares), the Gutenberg diagram (where the image is divided into quarters, with 4 distinct areas of differing strengths of where users rest their eyes), the F-shaped pattern (which came from eye tracking studies that show an F shape across the screen), and the zig-zag pattern (which extends the Gutenberg diagram to be a series of z paths through the content). Each of these principles were described in the context of a user scanning instead of reading, which the first section could have benefitted from.

Finally, Part 4 provides several examples of good content-based designs that take advantage of the idea that people scan instead of read content. I have to admit that I really scanned and skimmed through this section. The article was just so long, and I was itching to see where it would end up.

In the Conclusion, as I mentioned, I was rewarded with a wonderful payoff. His recommendations for how to use the content-scanning patterns to our advantage as designers included these:

  • Make important information stand out. Use headings, subheadings, highlighting, images, bulleted lists, etc.
  • Put the most important information into those areas that get most viewed. Top left corner seems like prime real estate.
  • Use short paragraphs or lists. I might add write shorter content, too.
  • Use images that are relevant and relate to your content. Images get more attention; readers will pause in their scanning to look at images.

As a technical editor, I can definitely use these design principles to help shape the content so that more reading happens after they have scanned to a section.

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5 Responses to Applying design principles to get people to read your content

  1. Sarah says:

    Hi Michelle, could you provide a link to the article? I’d be interested to read (or scan) it as well. Thanks, Sarah (formerly of IBM)


  2. Anna says:

    As a technical editor, I think that I would need to strike a balance between the recommendations cited in this post and DITA’s topic-based paradigm, which is structured, yet flexible. But is it flexible enough?


    • Michelle Corbin says:

      This article was written in the context of web UI design or web page design, and so many of its principles can only stretch so far. DITA topics can benefit from some of them, like headings and subheadings, and the use of lists and graphics of course. DITA is flexible enough to achieve many of the scannable text principles.


      • Anna Biunno says:

        Exactly what I was thinking, Michelle.

        In fact, I recently suggested to one of my writers that he recast paragraphs of dense content into a table for easier readability (but I was actually thinking scannability), stripping out low-value content. Even with a table, I’d have to ensure that we’re still adjusting for accessibility and ease of translation.

        This case is emblematic of a tech editor’s challenge to keep all the moving parts (design or otherwise) straight.


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