Writing for the Internet Generation

You won’t read most of what I write in this post.  You will most likely skim it and at best read half of the content (on average).

In May 2008, usability guru Jakob Nielson published his analysis of web usage data borrowed from a research study.  I recommend you read it after this article.  Here’s the big stunning quote:

Obviously, users tend to spend more time on pages with more information. However, the best-fit formula tells us that they spend only 4.4 seconds more for each additional 100 words.

Let’s make the reasonable assumption that most people cannot read 100 words in 4.4 seconds.  The implication is that for each 100 words I add to this article, readers on average will read a smaller percentage of the content (up to 1250 words, after which point the data becomes erratic according to Nielson).

On an average visit, users read half the information only on those pages with 111 words or less.


Tomorrow I am going to post some additional information and insights on attention span in the Information Age, but for now let’s draw a couple of conclusions about writing for the web:

Keep It Succinct

The less you write, the more that gets read percentage-wise.  Keep your message short and tight.

Keep It Scan-Friendly

Research from the 90s tells us that people scan web pages more than they read them.  The tried-and-true advice still holds:  use headlines and lists to help guide scanners to the information they might want to read.

Make Your Main Point Stand Out

Assume the average visitor will only read 20-40% of your page.  Make the most important content prominent so the reader spends her time absorbing the most fundamental parts of your message.

Experiment With Visuals

This is not derived directly from Nielson’s analysis, but you can experiment with visuals as a way to pack information into fast-to-interpret visuals instead of blocks of text that are not likely to be read.


I would write more here but the data says most of you won’t read it.  So instead stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on attention span.


Jakob Nielson’s article: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/percent-text-read.html

Original research paper: http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=1326561.1326566

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