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"How we really use the web"


thinkFollowing last weeks newsletter we continue to speak about Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. This week we are discussing "How we really use the web"


Over the past ten years we have spent a lot of time watching people use the Web, and the thing that has struck us the most is the difference between how we think people use websites and how they actually use them.

When we’re creating websites, we act as though people are going to pore over each page, reading our finely crafted text, figuring out how we’ve organised things. And weighing their options before deciding which link to click.

What they actually do most of the time is glance at each new page, scan some of the text and click on the first link that catches their interest or vaguely resembles the thing they’re looking for. There are usually large parts of the page that they don’t even look at.




how1As you might imagine, it’s a little more complicated than this and it depends on the kind of page, what the user is trying to do, how much of a hurry she’s in, and so on. But this simplistic view is much closer to reality than most of us imagine.

If you want to design effective web pages, you have to learn to live with three facts about real-world web use.

Fact of Life #1 - We don’t read pages. We scan them.

One of the very few well documented facts about website use is that people tend to spend very little time reading most web pages. Instead we scan them, looking for words or phrases that catch our eye.

The exception, of course, is pages that contain documents like news stories, reports or product descriptions.

Why do we scan?

  • We are usually in a hurry
  • We know we don’t need to read everything.
  • We’re good at ithow2

Fact of Life #2 – We don’t make optimal choices. We Satisfice.

When we’re designing web pages, we tend to assume that users will scan the page, consider all of the available options, and choose the best one.

In reality though, most of the time we don’t choose the best option – we choose the first reasonable option, a strategy known as satisficing. As soon as we find a link that seems like it might lead to what we’re looking for, there’s a very good chance that we’ll click it.

So why don’t web users look for the best choice?

  • We’re usually in a hurry.
  • There’s not much of a penalty for guessing wrong.
  • Weighing options may not improve our chances
  • Guessing is more fun

Of course, this is not to say that users never weigh options before they click. It depends on things like their frame of mind, how pressed they are for time, and how much confidence they have in the website.


Fact of Life 3 – W don’t figure out how things work. We muddle through.

One of the things that becomes obvious as soon as you do any usability testing whether you’re testing websites, software or household appliances is the extent to which people use things all the time without understanding how they work, or with completely wrong headed ideas about how they work.

Faced with any sort of technology, very few people take time to read instructions. Instead, we forge ahead and muddle through, making up our own vaguely plausible stories about what we’re doing and why it works.

Our favourite example is the people who will type a websites entire URL in the yahoo search box every time they want to go there – not just to find the website for the first time, but every time they want to go there, sometimes several times a day. If you ask them about it, it becomes clear that some of them think Yahoo is the internet and that this is the way you use it.how3

And muddling through is not limited to beginners. Even technically savvy users often have surprising gaps in their understanding of how things work.

Next Topic

Next week we will examine “Billboard Design – Designing pages for scanning, not reading”
Sources of information and further reading
When preparing this newsletter the main source of information and illustrations was Don't Make Me Think, A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability second edition by Steve Krug 2006 ISBN 0-321-34475-8
Don’t make me think!
Billboard Design

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