Why Web Users Scan Instead of Reading

by Jakob Nielsen on October 1, 1997

Sidebar to Jakob Nielsen 's column on how users read on the Web .

More research is needed to truly know why 79 percent of Web users scan rather than read, but here are four plausible reasons:

  • Reading from computer screens is tiring for the eyes and about 25 percent slower than reading from paper. No wonder people attempt to minimize the number of words they read. To the extent this reason explains users' behavior, they should read more when we get high-resolution, high-scanrate monitors in five years since lab studies have shown such screens to have the same readability as paper.
  • The Web is a user-driven medium where users feel that they have to move on and click on things. One of our users said: "If I have to sit here and read the whole article, then I'm not productive." People want to feel that they are active when they are on the Web.
  • Each page has to compete with hundreds of millions of other pages for the user's attention . Users don't know whether this page is the one they need or whether some other page would be better: they are not willing to commit the investment of reading the page in the hope that it will be good. Most pages are in fact not worth the users' time, so experience encourages them to rely on information foraging . Instead of spending a lot of time on a single page, users move between many pages and try to pick the most tasty segments of each.
  • Modern life is hectic and people simply don't have time to work too hard for their information. As one of our test users said, "If this [long page with blocks of text] happened to me at work, where I get 70 emails and 50 voicemails a day, then that would be the end of it. If it doesn't come right out at me, I'm going to give up on it."

Update 2005

Studies of Microsoft's ClearType technology show that it increases reading speeds from screens by 5%. Not nearly enough to make computer screens as good as paper, but at least it's a step forward.

Update 2010

Studies of iPad and Kindle reading speeds show that these tablets are still slightly slower than printed books, though much better than the old studies (discussed above) used to find for computer-based reading.

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