Sub-Second Orientation

When a visitor encounters a web-page for the first time, they will ask and answer three questions within about one second:

  1. What is this content?
  2. Is it relevant to me?
  3. What should I do next?

Realistically, for a human to ask and answer three questions about visually-presented material in such a short period of time, we must conclude that reading text is not their primary means. Eye-tracking studies support that. The many scan patterns — F-pattern, et al — track rapid eye movements across a page that are not consistently linear. In other words, they depict attention that moves from one piece of information to another, almost like a pinball bouncing across a game board crowded with obstacles. Reading, of course, is a relatively consistently paced, linear and repetitive process; virtually no initial scan pattern looks like it.

Scanning is a visual and cognitive sense-making experience that is not the same as reading. It may include reading, as individual characters, words, and phrases may be noticed and understood in a scan, but when that happens, it is because the visual language used to construct and arrange the elements on the page make that possible. The elements of visual language – shapes, colors, images — and their arrangement on a page can be more efficient communicators than text alone, provided that we use them with the anticipation that a scanning visitor will use them as well.

Visitor orientation is a sub-second, primarily visual process. Design accordingly!


13 March 2023