“No one reads the Internet”

March 12, 2021

I hear this all the time. I’m sure you have, too. Usually, it’s in some meeting, say a design review, where it’s used as someone’s justification for an opinion or decision.

Here’s the fact: people do indeed miss content on the web.

Here’s another fact: that’s a problem, not an answer.

The stats support the claim

Yes, it’s true. Lots of content goes overlooked on the web. Heatmaps, research and analytics all support that. Here are a few choice takeaways from Uberflip, which I’m referencing because it seems to be the best roundup of stats based on research that I was able to cross-verify.

  • 55% of all page views get less than 15 seconds of attention.
  • In 2008, a study concluded that visitors will only read about 20% of the text on the average page.
  • 2-3 letter words are skipped over almost 75% of the time.
  • The pattern in which people consume online content isn’t your typical left-to-right reading that you learned in school — rather, it’s an “F” shape that indicates users aren’t reading your content thoroughly.
  • Web users spend 69% of their time viewing the left half of a page and 30% viewing the right.
  • In a recent heat map analysis, CoSchedule learned that only 10-20% of readers were actually making it to the bottom of their posts.

Take any of those with a grain of salt because they vary as far as how and when the research was conducted. Still, looking at those numbers, I’d be tempted to scream “No one reads the Internet!” from the hilltops too. But that’s too easy. The numbers actually suggest else…

Design is the problem, not people

I can’t say this enough. When someone uses a blanket statement like “No one reads the Internet,” what they’re describing is a problem. And the research is there to clue us in on how to solve it. Traditional (read: scientific) thinking traps us into looking at data and focusing on the problem.

Compare that with how designers approach work. Good design is problem solving. At least that’s the crux of “design thinking” a term used by Stanford University’s School of Design to describe the optimal process for design work. Design thinking is an entire framework, but it breaks down into six steps:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

The difference between traditional ( thinking and design thinking is clear, but nicely summarized by the folks at Flywheel:

Where traditional thinking starts in identifying the problem, design thinking starts with observation. This allows the observant to truly understand the nature and culture of the problem instead of JUST the problem.

”How to solve problems like a designer”

So, is it true that no one reads the Internet? It certainly appears that way. But that’s the problem rather than the underlying cause, and it’s something that needs to be solved. With a designer’s acumen and fistful of good research, we can start tackling the issue and finding the best path forward to make sure people read what we want them to on the Internet.

This is coming from a real-life experience

I was in a meeting with one of the teams I work with and we were putting our brains together to outline a conditional form that allows users to open a support ticket for a product. Users are required to have a product license for support, but we still wanted to allow folks without a license to ask a question ahead of making a purchase.

I threw out the idea that we might want to let users submit a bug report to us, regardless of whether they have a license. I got pushback that people will get confused because they’re going to think they are submitting a support request instead of a bug report, I was told. That’s when I was told that no one reads the Internet. And everyone knows that’s a fact.

It’s totally possible that someone could very well confuse a bug report with a support ticket. But is the solution (or better yet, the decision) not to do something because data tells us not to do it? Or is that simply a problem that’s backed by a lot of research that can be used to create a solution?

The former is focused on the problem. The latter is focused on finding the solution to that underlying problem. So, next time you find yourself making a statement based on research and data, be sure to follow it up with the most important question…

Great, so how do we solve that?

It’s one thing if the problem is too big to tackle, or the solution is too much to take on. But simply tossing something aside because it is a problem isn’t productive. I’ll simply end with this well-articulated, self reflection…