Explained: the F-shape pattern for reading content
This article will walk you through the principles of the F-Layout, why it works, and how you can create your own.
What is the F-Pattern, and how does it work?
‘F-Pattern’ describes the most common user ‘eye-scanning pattern’, when it comes to blocks of content.
‘F’ for ‘fast’. That’s how users read your content. In a few seconds, their eyes move at amazing speeds across your website page.
The pattern was popularised by NNGroup’s eye-tracking study, which recorded more than 200 users looked at thousands of web pages. The study found that users’ main reading behaviour was fairly consistent across many different sites and tasks. This reading pattern looked somewhat like an ‘F’ and included the following three components:
Users first read in a horizontal movement—usually across the upper part of the content area. This initial element forms the F’s top bar.
Next, they scanned a vertical line down the left side of the screen, looking for points of interest in the paragraph’s initial sentences. When they found something interesting, they read across in a second horizontal movement that typically covers a shorter area than the previous movement. This additional element forms the F’s lower bar.
Finally, users scan the content’s left side in a vertical movement:
Obviously, users’ scan patterns are not always comprised of exactly three parts. When the reader finds something they like, they’ll begin reading normally—i.e. forming horizontal lines.
Why should I use it?
Bearing the F-shaped pattern in mind will help you create a design with good visual hierarchy—a design that people can scan easily. The F-shaped layout feels comfortable for most western readers, because they have been used to reading from top to bottom / left to right, for their entire lives.
When should I use it?
The F-shape is the ‘go-to’ layout for text-heavy websites like blogs and news sites. If there is a lot of content, users will respond better to a layout that is designed according to their natural habits of scanning. For example:
How to use the F-Shape pattern
F-Layout literally gives the designer more control over what gets seen.
Prioritise your content
Before arranging the elements on your page, prioritise the most and least important ones. Once you know what you want your users to see, you can simply place them in the pattern’s ‘hot spots’ to better ensure the right reader interactions.
Set initial expectations
The first two paragraphs on a page are the most important, so place the most important content as near to the top of the page as possible, so you can communicate the site’s (or page’s) purpose quickly.
The user will usually read horizontally across the header, so here’s a good place for a navigation bar:
Design for scanning, not reading
When applying the pattern, think ‘scanners’ — place content these scanners would most likely be interested in along the F:
Start new paragraphs with enticing keywords.
Give more visual weight to things that matter. People will first look at the most dominant element on the page.
Use typography to indicate the importance of text (e.g. try highlighting keywords within text), and certain colours to highlight buttons.
Cover only one idea per paragraph, and use bullets as much as possible.
Place the most important content (such as CTAs) at the left and right sides, where the user begins and ends their horizontal scanning. This momentary pause as they drop down gives them a little extra time for consideration.
Utilise the sidebar
The sidebar exists to get users involved in a deeper level, so use it to drive user engagement:
Feature anything you want your user to see, but that doesn’t fit in organically with the primary content. This could be an ad, a listing of “related articles”, a social media widget, etc.
Use it as a tool for users to find specific content. An obvious example is a category listing, a tag cloud, a “popular posts” widget, etc:
Avoid boring layouts
The main drawback to the F-shape layout is its predisposition to monotony. It’s easy to bore your users with repetitive and similar content in rows. You certainly don’t benefit from a bored user if they begin to dull everything out, so try adding one “awkward” element within the scanning area to keep the user engaged:
This technique of “breaking the expectations” of the layout can be useful when you have really long vertical spans of content that feel dull or boring once you scroll past the first couple of sections.
The F-shape pattern simply follows the common trends of the human eye so that you can optimise the structure of your layout. But, you don’t need to follow it rigidly — it’s a guideline, not a template.