When you sign up for a new app, what are the first steps you take?

Customizing your settings?

Installing add-ons and extensions?

Setting up your profile pic? ( All Traffic > Referrals. The results you get will show the URLs that someone visited before landing at your website, and these URLs will include social networks like Facebook and Twitter, tools like Feedly, and other websites that may have linked to you.

(Note: You can tell if someone visited from a mobile version of Twitter or Facebook by noticing the URL. If you see t.co in your list, this is a mobile Twitter visit. If you see m.facebook.com, this is a mobile Facebook visit.)

Another neat way to learn how people read your articles is with tools like CrazyEgg and Inspectlet.

One interesting takeaway from these tools is the heatmap feature, which shows you much of your page is being viewed on average. Here’s an example of a page from my personal website.

blogpost heatmap

Inspectlet also has a way to record the sessions of your website visitors so that you can see exactly how someone scrolls and where they move their mouse (or finger, for mobile devices). Here are a couple examples.

On desktop.

Screen Recording 2015-02-13 at 10.34 AM

On mobile.

inspectlet mobile

How to design your content to best help your audience

Jakob Nielsen’s 1997 article on how users read on the web continues to be relevant and true even to this day.

In general, people don’t read on the web, they scan.

I like the modern take, written this past year, by Zana Fauzi and Dahlia Ahad of Stampede Design as they describe how people consume online articles and content.

The way users read on the Web is different from the way they read printed pages. People rarely read word-by-word on the Web. Internet users scan a page until they find something of interest, and then they read.

This is a hugely helpful reminder for me as I think about not only the way that I write content but also the way that I design content. It seems a bit odd to talk about “designing content,” but as you might notice from the way that people actually look at your website (thanks to tools like Inspectlet), it’s clear that a well-designed article carries great value.

Here are some elements to consider as you’re designing your content and helping your audience find nuggets of interest.

The headline

Does your reader really look at your headline? Or, better put, does the headline on your article’s page make a difference on whether the reader keeps reading?

Quite possibly not. They’ve already seen a headline on social media or email or RSS. They might very well skip it here on your post. Headline writing remains a super important part of a quality piece of content. However, it may be that the most important headline you write is the first headline that your audience sees—and increasingly, those headlines appear in social media streams and email subject lines.

The meta information

Here’s another area that might often get skipped by a reader … unless it catches the reader’s eye for the wrong reason.

An untrustworthy profile picture. The eyes and brain make instant calculations about faces, so if there’s something off with your photo—if it’s tilted or skewed or you’re making a funny face or it’s just overall unprofessional—people will notice.

A wayback date. Occasionally, people will skip a post if the date is too old. Reading something from 2011 in 2015 could likely send people away.

The first paragraph

Adding a storytelling element to your opening paragraph could be huge for your reader retention. The blogging team at Groove saw a 300% rise in the number of people who scrolled to the bottom of an article when the article included a storytelling element.

The introduction—especially the first words of your introduction—figure to get the most attention by those reading your article. If you look at the heatmaps for your content, you’re likely to notice that the most viewed portions of your articles are the headlines and intros.


Use variations of headings. A mix of large headings and small headings (H2 and H3) are all you should need (if you end up going any deeper, use bold).


Create awesome, eye-catching images. Make the images as self-explanatory as possible.


Here’s a crazy stat from Bnonn of KISSMetrics:

Captions under images are read on average 300% more than the body copy itself.

If you do captions, do them well. Add keywords and useful descriptions and nuggets.

The conclusion

I’ve recently started renaming some final sections on blog posts as Summary. I found this is often what people are looking for at the bottom of a post—Summary, Takeaways, Action Steps, TL;DR. Any of these will work.

The P.S.

The P.S., like captions, are a hugely popular spot to read. According to Michael Fortin, it is the second-most-read part of a sales letter. It is a “second headline.” If readers scroll all the way to the bottom while scanning, the P.S. leaves a great, small spot to make an impact.

Subheads, blockquotes, bullet lists, short paragraphs, etc.

Based on your headline, your readers have gained an expectation to receive a certain value from your post.

Give them this value.

And make it easy to find.

If it’s a list of tools, make the tools easy-to-see with a heading. If it’s a lesson you’ve learned, bold your key paragraphs so the reader can find them. Make the value easy to find and locate without having to read every single word. And in the process of doing so, add additional nuggets.

A nugget can be anything useful, interesting, entertaining, or helpful that a reader takes from a post.

A nugget can be a teaser or a hook to draw people into reading more in-depth.

Here’s where the real content design and onboarding. As writers, we can do our best to guide readers from section to section throughout our posts. Readers aren’t obligated to follow, mind you. They might still skip around.

And in that case, we make it easy to skip. Subheads, blockquotes, bullet lists, short paragraphs, and bold font can do wonders for making a smooth reading/scanning experience for the reader.

Sometimes, I’ll cross my eyes when looking at a blog post I’ve written so that the words on the screen are slightly blurry and all I’m catching is the general layout and flow of a piece. For example:

It’s likely that some of your readers might see your posts in a similar way, seeking out the headlines and looking for a nugget to read deeply.

Summary: How do you put this all to good use?

Knowing how someone views your page—or at least considering the many different “onboarding flows” people may take to consume your content—should be helpful in thinking of your finished articles from a new perspective. Here are some tips I’m excited to try out on future Buffer blog posts.

  • Think of the first touch points for your article. Emphasize the headlines on social, email, and SEO as much as you do on the post itself.
  • Format your blog post with scanning in mind. Break up long paragraphs, add lots of headings and lists.
  • Share your most valuable nuggets. Place your key elements and catchiest taglines in easy-to-find places throughout the post. Guide the reader along.

Do you have any tips about what you’ve discovered with content? How do you feel about the whole concept of “content as onboarding” and “content design”? I’d love to hear your input. Feel free to leave any thoughts you might have in the comments!

Image sources: The Noun Project, Blurgrounds, Unsplash