Understanding Web Readers

Usability researchers have studied how people read webpages for nearly as long as the Web has existed. Their findings tell us many useful things about Web readers and what works for them.

The summary below is based on the sources in the "References" section.

Readers of Web Content Are:


They are not reading your webpage for pleasure. They are looking for information and/or online tools that will help them perform some task.


If it's not obvious to them right away that a page is related to their task, they will move on to another page.

Unable to Retain Too Many Items at Once 

They need to have detailed, complex information broken into smaller, more digestible pieces.

Decades of research on how human brains work clearly shows that people's short-term memory is limited. Estimates vary about how much a person can remember; seven plus or minus two items is widely cited, but others argue that the limit is closer to three or four.

Reading at Different Levels of Literacy

High-literacy, skilled readers use webpages very differently than low-literacy, unskilled readers, as summarized below:

High-literacy Readers:

  • read at a 10th–12th-grade level
  • scan pages in an “F” pattern
  • scan for headings, keywords and links
  • pay attention most to the first two words of  headings, paragraphs and links.

Low-literacy Readers:

  • read at a 6th–8th-grade level
  • do not scan pages
  • read slowly, word by word
  • interpret text literally
  • stop reading once they find a plausible answer, even if it isn't  the best or correct answer
  • give up if there are too many words.

"Low-literacy" is not "illiterate."

Reading skill involves many factors, such as education level, whether the content is in the person's native language and whether the person has a reading or other cognitive disability. Low-literacy readers can read — just not as quickly and easily as a high-literacy reader. 

For more on this issue, see Jakob Nielsen's article, "Lower-Literacy Users: Writing for a Broad Consumer Audience."

How to Serve All Audiences

In spite of the differences between skilled and unskilled readers, it is possible to make your webpages serve both. To learn more about how, see the other pages in this section about writing, organizing and formatting webpages.

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