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Embracing a Slow User Experience in Web Design

by on March 10, 2015
Last updated on

"A visitor's attention span is only 15 seconds", "we've got to capture the reader", "we've got to keep them moving along in the direction we want them to go", "we've got to give them options"...

How often do you hear those statements when discussing web pages, web design and online marketing?

We've lost our rhythm and are giving short-shrift to the User's Reading Experience.

I was recently introduced to the concept of The Slow Web, and while I'd never heard it coined before, I knew it deep down. The idea that our lives shouldn't be dictated to us by our cell phones, our text messages, our need to find immediate answers via a quick Google search at all hours. The belief that technology should be a tool for us to use, not something to rule our lives and dictate our actions. And the idea that we're being spoon-shoveled data, most of it with little meaning or value, at an alarming rate, and how it affects us.

We need to share share share!

We need to add to our to-do list!

We need to have 20+ browser tabs open at all times!

I have so much to do today, I need another 3 me's!

And then sometimes we stumble upon an article, written on a website, that enables us to breathe and to read, and it feels like we're on vacation for those 5 minutes. We actually read the entire article, in one uninterrupted sitting.

Welcome to a slow user experience in web design.

Slow Experiences - an introduction

We always talk about web pages in terms of Purpose and Goals, with the purpose and goals of the visitor being considered in a matrix/intersection of purpose and goals of the website. We work to optimize the user flow and sales funnel, making sure conversion points are strategically placed, and create page layouts, designs and branding experiences that aim to advance our purpose and goals. To funnel the users quickly and effectively.

In our earlier discourse on Above the Fold, we wrote:
“Depending on the study that you read, you have between 8 and 15 seconds to capture the attention of your visitor, to convince them to read further, to convince them to read and not skim, to convince them to go somewhere deeper into your page/site, or to give them an action to perform.”

This fear of losing our visitor due to lack of attention span is a fear that often causes many websites to err on the side of adding alternatives, or hoping to capture the conversion before the buzzer goes off. But it’s also very well possible that those alternatives are the ones driving the attention disability, interfering with the reader experience, and leading to a shallower user engagement.

Most websites rely on content marketing through their blog components to be a significant driver of new visitors to their website. In some cases as much as 95% of a website’s traffic is coming in through the blog as opposed to the website’s homepage, a behavior we described in a discussion on converting your website visitors no matter where they land.

So if you’ve taken the time to write blog posts of value that are capturing new visitors, wouldn’t you want your visitors to read and enjoy the entire post?

Rather than giving the reader alternative paths to reading (and leaving!) the content, why not remove all alternatives to the content they come for (landing page), and then giving them the alternatives and calls to action once they’ve reached the end? Seeing as how at that point they’ve invested time in reading, and hopefully have a greater appreciation for you and the value you bring to the table, wouldn’t it be reasonable to consider that those calls to action would have an even greater conversion rate?

Fast Pages vs. Slow Pages, and a time for each

The pace of the reader experience is something that I rarely see discussed. A positive experience is always espoused, but it is more likely in the context of making information accessible and readable, properly displaying the content and functionality for the device the reader is using (responsive web design). Other experiential considerations often revolve around functionality and display gimmicks. Embracing a lengthy reader experience is rarely focused upon; in fact, not enough is written about the timing of the user experience and matching it to the needs of the audience and content.

But first, let's define a Fast Page and a Slow Page.

A Fast Page is a functional funnel, a fast-food takeout window. A page where you want the reader to quickly get what they’re looking for, or enough of what they’re looking for, and move on to the next page in the queue or to one or more calls to action.

A Slow Page is the opposite: a sit-down five course. A page where you want the reader to put their feet up, get comfortable, and give your page 100% of their attention and consideration. You want to leave them alone as much as possible to enjoy their meal, and only once they’re done, lead them onward to other pages or calls to action.

Most of us are familiar with Fast Pages, so here are some favorite examples of Slow Pages:

NYTimes : Snow fall
LifeAndThyme.com
AListApart.com
The New Yorker
NYTimes : 52 places to go in 2015

Compare the experience of these pages, all blogs or long-form content, with another long-form content site:

CNN.com

Which one do you feel like sitting down and reading, vs. which one is making you want to quickly skim and go elsewhere?

Enhancing long form content

The data supporting the value proposition of long form content within content marketing is something that has been analyzed extensively by experts such as Neil Patel. To summarize Neil Patel’s findings on QuickSprout, long form content performed better in search rankings, backlink creation, social shares, and conversion rates.

But even in looking at Neil’s web pages, I wonder what effect it would have if he removed all of his popups, fly-ins, and other marketing messages and reserved them to discrete spots incorporated into the post, or at the end of the posts.

Would reaching the end of the post, unobstructed, further develop the reader’s trust and perceived value for when they reach the calls to action and conversion points?

To improve something that's working our common response is to add onto that thing, making it bigger, stronger, heavier. But instead, perhaps try removing, pruning, and focusing on the clarity of purpose would be a better approach... This is the heart of it.

Identifying and Incorporating Slow Pages

So far I’ve been using Slow Pages mostly to describe long form blog posts, but Slow Pages can be used elsewhere and used to describe other piece of content.  Or a slow page could have just one single word. Just imagine that.


The key descriptors of Slow Pages are:

  • content meant to go deeper, be more thought-provoking
  • limited reader distractions from that main content
  • reader engagement with the content at their own pace
  • optimal presentation for all aspects of the content

Slow pages are an ideal time to convey value and build trust with your readers. Long form blog posts, case studies, research reports, visual portfolios, interactives… all pages where you want the visitor to stop and slow down. And enjoy the content you put in front of them.

What? You don’t have any? Why not?!?

I believe most websites operate at one speed, typically the speed of fast (based on the 15 second attention span). The reader is never given the opportunity to put their feet up, get comfortable, and deep-dive into any of the presented content, likely resulting in a shallower user experience and lower developed trust value. Interjecting slow pages into your site, or at least making them available on demand, provides that opportunity for your visitor to establish a deeper relationship with you through your content before they engage with your calls to action.

In the earlier referenced article, Above the Fold, I explored ways that you could gain metrics on the depth of readership on individual pages within your site. Using the scrollDepth plugin, you’d be able to see the percentage of visitors to a web page made it 25% down the page, 50%, 75%, and 100%. You could also use a different plugin to learn the active time that visitors spend on those pages. Using that data, you could correlate the deep-readers with action items that they then performed.

Presenting your content, removing reader distractions

I’ve found that I enjoy doing most of my long form content reading when I’m not on my computers, but instead on my 7” Nexus tablet. To some extent that might be because I can read the tablet as I would a paperback book, but the other reason is because, in many cases, the website owner has (accidentally) stumbled upon a more Slow Page experience when their site became responsive. Their responsive layout forced them to go to a one-column layout, to either move their sidebars and extraneous materials to below the content (or removed entirely), to switch their font treatment, and to disable disruptors such as popups and overlays.

The reader experience in their responsive layouts makes for a much more pleasurable reading experience!

People have also told me about the Safari web browser’s “reader mode” that removes the visual clutter, as well as the Chrome web browser plugin called Clearly by Evernote. But isn’t it a shame that you need to go outside of the web page to get that clean reader experience?

Instead, I believe that website owners should understand both the landing pages in their site, as well as their long form content within their site, and either create a layout specifically for these Slow Pages or turn all of their standard interior-page templates to be more slow-friendly. The effectiveness of the standard sidebar should be questioned, especially on pages where you are hoping that the visitor focuses on the content. Minimized or hidden sidebars, swing-out menus, options that are displayed based on timing or movement… all possible now. All sorts of user interface and user experience behaviors that can create that space to breathe and read. Find the user interface and user experience that works for your brand and vision, while also being clutter-free.

Typography and text presentation

Typography is a deep well of strong opinions, so I’ll only touch on a few of the subjects that I feel have the greatest impact. Here's a guide with more information on best typography practices. The reason I’m including this section is not because a Slow Page is defined by typography, but that it is one way in which the User Experience can get waylaid by occasional lack of forethought to the way the content is being presented.

Font faces
The font that is used is often chosen because the designer has fallen in love with the font face for its look and tie-in to the branding/logo. Long form content readability is often (unfortunately) the last concern of the designer. Sans-serif fonts with too much whitespace, serif fonts with too much serif, and lack of differentiation between headers and paragraph text and treated markup text... the choice of font face(s) can greatly affect the overall readability and reader experience of your content.

Line length
The length of a line of text is often never considered; the designer has a space set aside of a specified width, the font size was chosen, and the line’s length happens as a result. How many characters or words fill that space from left to right… little to no thought has gone into specifying it. And yet the act of reading a long or short line, and having your eyes do a “carriage return” from the end of the right to the beginning of the left affects your reader’s comfort level.

Line height and letter spacing
Line height and letter spacing deal with the negative space between lines of text and the individual character. That negative space can either enable easier reading, or make it even tougher. Lines can be too crammed, out just as easily too spaced apart. The same with the spacing between letters. Finding the right balance of positive to negative space (characters to empty spacing) can add to the site’s readability or hinder it.

Help your reader read your content: focus on your typography!

For great reads on font size, line length, and other factors in how people read:
Smashing Magazine - Size Matters: Balancing Line Length And Font Size In Responsive Web Design
Typecast - a more modern scale for web typography

Not just text pages

The decisions made with lots of gorgeous photography are often some of the worst. For example, in slideshows, most force the viewer to appreciate the photos at the site’s pre-determined speed, not their own. Rarely are you told how many slides there are or which slide you're on. Some even try to leave room, either surrounding the slideshow or overtop of the slideshow, for content and calls to action. The worst culprits are the slideshows that allow you to “take control” and navigate, but then the slideshow takes control back from the user and continues on with the automated show.

Apparently not even gorgeous photographs can keep their users’ attention in their minds.

Slideshows aren’t always the answer for displaying images. In fact, sometimes the best answer is to display the images, full screen, and simply provide the user with a scrolling option (example)

Expectations and investment

You’re thinking conversion rates. You’re always thinking conversion rates. How will I get people to still do the things I need them to do if I strip them away and “give them space and time” to do reading. You’re concerned. Good.

But let’s think of it from the user viewpoint.

They came to your site with expectations. They came looking for content, perhaps based off of a Google search query. They came looking for answers. So now it’s your website’s time to shine and give them what they came looking for.

Let them achieve their goals first. Let them get the great content that you wrote their fullest attention. Let them enjoy their meal. Then, once they’ve had their fill, they’ve looked up and made eye contact with you to signal they’re done, now give them the next step. They’re invested in you now, you’ve won their attention and respect. You’ve softened them up for the goals that you have for them, and they’ll be more willing and ready to undertake them as (hopefully) you’ve met or even exceeded their expectations, given them value, and are ready for even more.

Add your voice

You’ve read a lot so far, and I’m glad you did! So what thoughts did this post create for you? What did you think about the concept of Slow Pages and a Slow Experience?

Are you thinking about your own site and how content within it relates to Slow Pages? Perhaps you’re rethinking some of your design and layout decisions, or about to head into your Google Analytics to see statistics such as scroll depth, time on page, and the user flow within landing pages?

Tell me about it in the comments section below!

Or perhaps you're curious about me, the author, or in learning about Confluent Forms and how we can work with you to achieve your goals.

All of that comes about because you were able to sit back and read. And hopefully enjoy.



A quick thank you to Gina FiedelStephan Hovnanian, and Vincent Messina for reading, editing, and providing valuable feedback and suggestions.  

Additions

Mary Iannotti introduced me to a great B2B web usability report with fascinating insights including "buyers don't like to be interrupted", they want to see more long form content such as case studies, white papers, and articles, and "Anything that prevents them from achieving that purpose – from wasting their time, interrupting their train of thought or reducing a vendor’s credibility – frustrates them."

Join the conversation