Return to: GROK Dot Com 11/01/2001

Set Up Scanning and Skimming So They See

You spent your time to write right. Not only is your text persuasive, but now you're ready to make sure your reader engages with your text on your webpage. This is a usability issue. So how helpful is it when the terms folks use for talking about usability stuff sound different, but seem to mean the same thing? Take scannability and skimmability.

"You mean there's a difference … and I need to understand it?" you wonder. You bet! If your visitors can't scan and skim your web pages quickly and efficiently as soon as they first arrive, aren't going to stick around to dig deeper. Not good. Even though these two activities are related, they are distinct experiences in the usability equation and require separate treatment. If you lump scannability and skimmability together, chances are you're going to miss the Usability Boat.

So how do you keep your visitors scanning and skimming merrily toward taking the action you want? I'm so glad you asked!

Before we go any further, I'd like to refer to one of your favorite references: the dictionary.i

Scan: To look over quickly and systematically (scan the horizon for signs of land), to leaf through hastily.

Skim: To give a quick and superficial reading, scrutiny, or consideration (skim the newspaper).

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

Think of it this way: You're on the frontier of the wild and wooly west, and your trusty horse crests the hill. Before you is a vast expanse of territory. You don't know if there's danger out there. So you look around. A copse of trees to the left … a lake in the distance … a tendril of smoke drifting above a small rise … a wooden fence close to 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. You approach. It's a "Wanted Dead or Alive" poster. You dismount and get a bit closer, and "skim" the contents, looking for the most salient facts first that will help you decide if you need to bother with the fine print.

See the difference between scanning and skimming? Now let's apply it to your website.

Your visitor arrives and her eyes immediately begin scoping out the situation (see The Eyes Have It) to determine if she's in the right place. First, she will 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 like headlines, she will be evaluating larger-scale issues such as legibility, arrangement and accessibility. This is where the more prominent features including the size of your type, the layout of your page and your use of color come into play. You want to help her minimize the time she spends on finding, sorting, and selecting information and get her engaged in the conversion process. If she doesn’t find top-level clues that she’s in the right place, or if she finds the page too hard to deal with, she’s back on her horse, galloping to another site.

Skimming is the second - but no less important - activity. It is a reading-based activity, a refinement in the information-gathering process. When your visitor has a fairly good idea of the lay of the land, she is going to start engaging with your copy. But she's not ready to stop and read anything thoroughly. She’s still not sure whether it will be worth her while. So she's going to start with just a superficial skimming, looking for the highlights and the important key words that will help direct further involvement. This is where bolding key words, bulleting, keeping paragraphs short, making sure the first and last sentences in each paragraph are strong, choosing a legible font, and even the effective use of hyperlinks (see How Many Holes Are In Your Bucket?) all make a difference.

At Future Now this is a critical distinction we help our clients understand as we guide them in improving their sites and their copy. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that can make a big difference in your results. Try it - you'll like it!


i Definitions are taken from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition.

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Return to: GROK Dot Com 11/01/2001

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