The #1 most important feature to appreciate about browsing behaviour is scanning.
Web sites designed to be looked at are likely to fail.
Web sites designed to be scanned are more likely to succeed.
What is scanning?
Scanning is what you almost certainly do when you look at a web page.
Instead of starting at the top and reading downwards, most people have learnt that they get better results by scanning over the page, looking for certain clues.
What are we scanning for?
Once we accept that people are going to scan instead of reading, we have to ask what they're scanning for.
The answer is 'Clues'. The specific 'clues to what' will depend on the context, and very much on the user's goals. Very often the clue might be to answer the ever-present question, "Am I in the right place?", or its brother, "How can I find what I'm looking for?".
When navigating around, we don't read the whole page and then make an educated, fully informed guess. What most people do is click on the first thing that appears to offer a fairly good chance of being the right thing.
» More on why people scan (from Useit.com)
What are the implications on web page design?
You can't make people read. If visitors are going to scan, designers need to know how to help them to scan successfully.
How to aid scanning
When your eye scans a page, it only settles on a few elements: the ones that seem most likely to be useful. There are ways of 'promoting' elements to help them stand out to the scanning eye, and there are ways of making content 'recede' - stand out less. These techniques make use of the classic tools of design: hierarchy & containment, contrast, proximity, rhythm, motion and flow. Of these tools, contrast is the most important (it has its own tutorial later on).
To aid scanning, we can:
- have insight into what features will be most relevant and important to the user.
- know how to apply visual styles and techniques to help point the eye towards those elements, and skip over the unimportant elements (see the graphic design section for specific articles & tutorials).