Effective Skimming and Scanning

You take the time to write correctly. Your text is persuasive. How do you ensure a reader engages with the text on your Web pages?

This goes beyond a copywriting. It’s a usability issue. Usability professionals use two terms to describe how visitors engage with text that are easy to confuse: skimming and scanning.

“There’s a difference? And I need to understand it?” you’re wondering. You bet! If visitors can’t scan and skim your Web pages quickly and efficiently as soon as they arrive, they won’t stick around to dig deeper. Not good. Not good at all. While skimming and scanning are related, they’re distinct experiences in the usability equation and require separate treatment. Lump scanability and skimability together, and chances are you’ll miss the lessons to be learned from the serious usability research that’s been conducted.

How do you keep visitors merrily scanning and skimming toward taking the action you want? I’m so glad you asked!

Before we go further, let’s look into a favorite reference: the dictionary. “The American Heritage Dictionary” defines the terms as follows:

Scan: To look over quickly and systematically; to look over or leaf through hastily

Skim: To give a quick and superficial reading, scrutiny, or consideration; glance

Can you see though the two are similar, they’re not quite the same? Both scanning and skimming are information-gathering activities. People perform them quickly, usually without thinking much. But they don’t work the same way, and they don’t serve the same purpose.

Think of it this way: You’re on the wild and woolly Western frontier. Your trusty horse crests the hill. Before you is a vast expanse. You don’t know if there’s danger out there. You look around. A thicket to the left… a lake in the distance… a tendril of smoke drifting above a small rise… a wooden fence near you on the right. Your “scan” suggests things look pretty safe. So you spur your horse to a trot. Passing the fence, you notice a piece of paper nailed to a post. It’s a “Wanted Dead or Alive” poster. You dismount, get closer, and “skim” the text for the most salient facts to help decide if you’ll bother with the fine print.

See the difference between scanning and skimming? Let’s apply it to your Web site.

A visitor arrives and her eyes immediately begin scoping out the situation to determine if she’s in the right place. First, she’ll scan the visible screen for prominent elements, determining if they mesh with her mental image of her mission. As she scans, in addition to collecting top-level clues such as headlines, she’ll evaluate larger-scale issues, such as legibility, arrangement, and accessibility. This is where more prominent features, including type size, page layout, and color use come into play. You want to help her to minimize the time she spends finding, sorting, and selecting information and to engage her in the conversion process. If she doesn’t find top-level clues she’s in the right place or if she finds the page hard to deal with, she’s back on her horse, galloping to another site.

Skimming is the second, but equally important, activity. It’s reading based, a refinement of the information-gathering process. When a visitor has a fairly good idea of the lay of the land, she’s going to start engaging with the copy. She’s not ready to stop and read anything thoroughly — yet. She’s not sure if it’s worth her while. She’ll start with a superficial skim, looking for highlights and important keywords that help direct further involvement. This is where bold keywords, bullets, short text blocks, strong first and last sentences in each paragraph, legible fonts, and even effective hyperlink use make a difference.

This critical distinction helps our clients understand as we guide them in improving their sites and their persuasive copy. A subtle distinction, but one that makes a big difference. Try it!

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