How to Make Web Interface Scannable

Every day, the internet is expanding with new apps, websites, articles, and more. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to hold the attention of information-overloaded users who find it challenging to filter relevant information from irrelevant content. The research indicates that users don’t actually read everything they see word by word—they scan and then determine whether the material is worth their time. By making appropriate content instantly scannable, a product designer may convert a short-term visitor into a long-lasting user.

What Is Scannability?

UX experts at the Nielsen Norman Group conducted research to answer the question: How do people read on the web? His findings were simple. They don’t.

The group found that only 16% of first-time visitors to a website are likely to read it word by word. The other 84% will quickly scan for hook elements, such as headlines, sentences, images, or animations before deciding to dig deeper into the material. This behavior isn’t limited to digital interfaces. For instance, people rarely read every word in a newspaper. Instead, they scan the same elements—headlines, images, etc.—to determine what is worthy of their time.

Scannability is, therefore, the approach of laying out content so it is easy to scan. There is often only a short period of time to impress a visitor with valuable content on-screen, making it critical to fully optimize an interface for how users read on the web. Whether the digital product is a website, application, or other type of user interface, scannability is one of the most significant factors of user-friendly design.

The Benefits of a Scannable Interface

The ideal way to determine the scannability of a digital product is to observe it from the user’s perspective and answer these key questions:

  1. Does the content of the page correspond to audience expectations?
  2. Is the main message of the page easy to understand in a short time period?

Although scannable interfaces take effort to produce, it pays off in the long run by creating a sticky UI design. Nielsen Norman Group’s study shows that pages optimized for scannability become much more effective in the following ways:

  • Users have faster task-completion times
  • Users can easily define whether the content is right for them
  • Users make fewer errors in recollection
  • Users get a better sense of a page’s structure
  • A site receives more favorable subjective ratings for credibility and content quality
  • Bounce rates are reduced
  • The probability of return visits is increased
  • Search engine optimization (SEO) is improved

Popular Scanning Patterns

Everyone consumes content differently. However, through research, well-defined eye-tracking patterns have emerged. Knowing how users interact with interfaces within the first few seconds can help designers prioritize content, place important information in the primary visible zones, and establish a strong visual hierarchy.

scannability featured img

According to the Nielsen Norman Group, there are seven common patterns in which users scan an interface:

  • The Famous F Pattern: Twelve years after its discovery, this pattern is still the most common scanning pattern—even when scanning mobile interfaces. The eye moves horizontally, as is typical when reading, then skips to the content below. This can be done slowly and systematically or quickly with a spottier heatmap.
  • Z Pattern: The zig-zag model is typical in web pages with a uniform presentation of information and a weak visual hierarchy.
  • Layer Cake Pattern: Users follow this pattern when scanning headings and subheadings to quickly determine where (and if) the information they’re seeking can be found on the page.
  • Spotted Pattern: Creatives typically follow this scanning model, where they skip big chunks of text and scan visual components such as color, shapes, and proportion anomalies to find a specific piece of information.
  • Marking Pattern: Like a dancer fixating on an object to stay balanced as they twirl, users keep the eye focused on one place while scrolling—a very common pattern for mobile UX.
  • Bypassing Pattern: Users deliberately skip the first words of a line when multiple lines of text in a list all start with the same word(s).
  • Commitment Pattern: This is a rare pattern and only occurs when a user is highly interested in the content and motivated to consume all of it.

UI Design Best Practices for Better Scannability

Create a Proper Visual Hierarchy

The visual hierarchy of a digital interface refers to the arrangement and presentation of UI design elements to communicate levels of importance so users can quickly scan for desired information. There are several factors in designing a layout with proper visual hierarchy:

  • Size
  • Color
  • Contrast
  • Proximity
  • Alignment
  • Negative Space
  • Repetition

By taking these UI design patterns into consideration while creating a UI layout design, a designer will ensure that the final product has a great looking, harmonious, and intuitively scannable layout.

Leverage Negative Space

The proper amount of negative (white) space around UI elements brings focus to the elements themselves. It emphasizes the content and provides the necessary breathing space to ensure the layout doesn’t feel cluttered. Without breathing space, the human brain is less likely to scan points of interest and more likely to be confused.

scannability whitespace

Use Subheadings to Summarize Content

People often respond negatively to large chunks of text. It can trigger the assumption that they will lose time if the paragraph doesn’t match their interests. UI design best practices offer a solution to this issue. By adding brief subheadings at the beginning of long articles, the user has ultimate insight into the topic.

While writing the subheading, it is crucial to keep it to the point. Simply communicate the key message the content below is offering.

Create Bulleted and Numbered Lists

The human brain is very systematic—it observes content and then groups it into meaningful units. Therefore, a user is more likely to comprehend a bulleted or numbered list than several points merged into a textual paragraph.

Visualize the Content

Modern digital users are naturally visual and are not always likely to respond well to textual content (even if it is perfectly structured and follows all the UI design tips for ideal scannability). External environments will always be a factor. Therefore, to offset text-heavy layouts, the use of images and graphics offer both informative and emotionally appealing visual breaks.

Original visuals (illustrations, engaging photos, etc.) can easily capture a user’s attention and support the general stylistic concept. What’s more, they can improve the visual hierarchy and make the text easier to digest. However, there is a danger that a graphic can cause a counter effect if not used properly. Before transforming key ideas into graphics, it’s critical that designers completely understand the content they are designing.

scannability visualization
Apple provides an outstanding example of using a visualization in order to improve scannability and visual hierarchy of the interface.

Set Appropriate Emphasis on the CTAs

The majority of digital experiences are aimed at eliciting a particular action from the user. Although call-to-action (CTA) buttons often look very simple, they are strategically designed to help the user complete an action—such as buy, add to a basket, or simply go to another page.

UI design best practices suggests positioning the CTA close to the content that describes the action, making it intuitive for the user. An effective way to test whether the CTA is well proportioned, colored, and positioned is to temporarily convert the final design to grayscale. If the CTA remains distinctly visible and emphasized, the sticky UI is done well.

Uber uses simple UI design patterns to make effective CTAs
Uber implements their “Tap a Button. Get a Ride” promise by using a high-contrast CTA with a generous amount of negative space.

The Importance of Scannability

There are a lot of elements that determine whether a UI layout design will be well received by people—such as content relevance, competitor solutions, and business logic. According to Forbes, scannability may be the most overlooked factor of content marketing. By creating scannable content, a short-term visitor can become a long-lasting user.

Scannable content demonstrates to the end user that their time is valued and provides the opportunity to understand the core message by simply glancing over a layout design. Viral blogger and journalism professor Kim Keller points out to designers that “you’re starting a conversation with someone whom you want as a customer. It’s a relationship, and no relationship can survive if you don’t spend time together. Respect their time and make it worthwhile.”