The great thing about humans is that we have more similarities than differences. That allows us to design things based on common behaviors.
Take websites, for instance. Not everyone is the same, but for the most part, when an internet user opens up a web page, their eyes tend to follow a similar pattern as that amazing organ – the brain – searches for what it wants to find.
In most cases, something called The Gutenberg Rule (after that guy with the printing press) dictates how the eye will track on a web page (at least in Western civilization – folks who read Arabic or Chinese have different eye patterns).
The Gutenberg Rule is centered on something called “reading gravity,” which is the tendency to read left-to-right and top-to-bottom. This basically leads to the practice of scanning the page in an “F” shaped pattern.
Take a look at some of your favorite website and see if you can spot how content has been arranged to take advantage of the “F” shape pattern.
Meanwhile, it’s also important to keep in mind that unlike the print medium (say, a newspaper or shopping catalog), the web is a scrolling medium. Whereas that may seem limited compared to good old-fashioned page-turning, the web adds the extra dimension of embedded links. This allows the user to navigate in ways undreamed of just twenty years ago when we all had ink on our fingers.
While embedding links as part of your layout, you’ll want to bear in mind their appearance, their placement on the page, and ways to alert the reader to where the links will take them relative to their current location (such as pop-up tool tips with destination information – or even little preview windows).
Finally, when thinking about layout, you have to try to remember to shoot for the lowest common denominator. Although a visually appealing and feature-rich web page may be cool for you and all your geek buddies, some of the folks visiting your page may still be using 800 x 600 resolution or a dial-up connection. Usability and web layout must take into consideration the limitations of some users’ computer infrastructure.