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Image by SIMON LEE
  • Writer's pictureantoniodellomo

Design for Glanceability

Glance means to look quickly at something/somebody; to read something quickly and not thoroughly. Glanceability is a term used for information designed for short moments of interaction. Today's world is always quicker how to design content for audiences who are only half paying attention is a growing challenge.

According to conventional advice, if content designers make content simple and relevant, the content will earn the attention of audiences. The messy, everyday reality that audiences face interferes with their attention, no matter how well-considered and crafted the content. The stark truth is that attention cannot always be earned. It must be bargained with.

The Poynter Institute has produced the below diagram which shows where, in general, people mostly look, and these results are for English-language web pages — presumably they generalize to most pages that have a left-to-right reading order.

Image from the Poynter Institute

A lot of the key stuff is in the top-left — that’s the red area. Then there’s a secondary ring around that. And finally, below the fold and off to the far right is where the lowest priority stuff is. A good heuristic, “top left, more important; as you get lower or further to the right, less important.”

Mobile usage brings with it smaller screens, varying attention spans, and interrupted usage. Filtering, prioritizing, context-awareness, and timely and visually presenting relevant information to users when and where they need it is the challenge faced while designing glanceable user experiences.

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen conducted a study of how people read online, and the summary of his results is: “They don’t!”

There are times where we sit down and read a lengthy article online but that’s not exactly what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about general-purpose web browsing when users are fishing around for information, and in these cases, it’s extremely rare to find that people will spend a significant amount of time on one site. Often you’ll see people have several tabs open simultaneously, and they’re even doing unrelated tasks simultaneously: So they may search for a while. After a minute or two, an email gets exciting; go to that. Come back, look across multiple different sites at once. So what this means is that the successful sites are the ones that support this interlaced browsing as effectively as is possible by bubbling up the most important stuff.

A Challenge for Content Designers

According to the cliché, timing is everything. When audiences face so many demands on their attention, content timing matters significantly. Content designers should consider ways content can work in harmony with the activities of audiences, instead of competing with these activities. To realize this possibility requires embracing a radical idea: accepting that the secondary content presented may not be the primary motivation of your audience. Because audiences in many circumstances are only willing and able to offer partial attention, the secondary content needs to be sufficiently interesting and timely to merit glancing. The content design challenge is discovering how to get audiences to glance at content that they don’t feel they need to see but will want to view, if only briefly. Content that’s useful, without being demanding. How can we create glanceable moments?


Designing for partial attention can seem like a loss of control since there are no guarantees a specific message will reach a specific person. But it also represents an opportunity to reach audiences who may not be otherwise available. And it encourages us to think about the fundamentals of how to attract audiences and build their interest in the content.


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