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How visitors view websites: design for information scent

When planning and improving a website, it is important to know how people view websites. Knowing this will help you to design your site in such a way, that people will be able to find and do what they want on your website.

How to describe visitor behaviour?

Before changing the site layout, it is important to understand the nature of human behaviour on the website. It helps that certain known patterns apply to human behaviour, such as:

  • people hunt for information, using words as clues
  • people follow a funnel to conversion
  • people flow like water, when released on a website

In essence, the metaphors used to describe human behaviour stand on known natural principles, such as animal instincts and a flow of water. Let's look at them in more detail.

Hunting for information

When a predator stalks its prey, it uses its senses, such as smell and sight, to find the victim. It follows the trail of paw-prints, spots of fur and blood to track the target.

Humans are very similar: they use words, related to their target (be it a product, an article, or a person's name) to find what they want.

This fact is emphasized by people reading from top to bottom and from left to right, which creates a top-left triangle of attention. It means that in order to get noticed, you'll need to use the words your people will recognize as useful in the top-left part of the page.

Read more about:

Visitor funnel

The concept of a funnel is less wild and more down to earth. Here, visitors are compared to water and the funnel represents the pages they visit.

The upper, broader part of the funnel is the entrance page and the bottom part is the page of the final conversion.

The intermediate funnel part is pages a human visits before converting.

The different, in my opinion, lies in that in general, the visitor path may not be linear, because people click on the link that they think will answer their needs most - and people are different. But the funnel theory splits the visitor stream in many springs and guides them with relevant clues, aka in a funnel.

Read more about:

Water flow

The water flow concept, which I introduce here (or maybe introduced by someone else elsewhere), is based on the fact that water flows the shortest way to the downside. The concept is not different from the other two, but it describes as clearly as the scent trail theory the attitude towards the trail: a visitor only goes where it sees a need to go.

In the water theory, people are compared to springs, which go where they can, and when they can't go somewhere (no path), they just return to them main stream and flow another way.

In general, this is no vastly different from the two above, but I prefer to see it this way.

The details

All the models, however simple or complicate they are, are based on a couple of principles that people follow:

  • the visitor goes where he sees a possible continuation of his visit: a link to a useful resourece/product/action
  • if the visitor doesn't see a way to continue his walk from the page, he goes to the previous page to try another way
  • the visitor follows the above principle until he either leaves the site (and thus goes back to the previous useful source) or converts
  • people scan from top to bottom, from left to right
  • people not read, but scan: quickly check if there's anything interesting on the page and proceed with their journey
  • since people scan, the text should be readable and properly formated for reading from the web page
  • you should use the simplest words available: your site should be understood by your every visitor
  • the words you use on your site should be relevant to the visitor, he has to identify himself with what you have to offer (or visa versa)
  • use of call to action, motivating the visitor to proceed (usually, to the most useful pages) helps guide the visitors further

In essence, you should provide the people the words that they will recognize, associate with themselves and use them to find what they want on your website. Formatting the text, combining the call to action with links should help draw attention to the most relevant pages from the current page.

Read more about providing clear click path.

This goes in line with providing various paths for various kinds of customers, such as researching, comparing or buying, as well as different types of people, such as thoughtful (use facts, well-written articles, figures, graphs) and emotional (call to action, various benefits, etc).

You can read more about various types of customers from the Eisenbergs:

When to think about visitor behaviour

Obviously, the sooner you take into account how people view websites, the better off you'll be. As it doesn't take long to understand the basic idea of hunting for information, you'd rather implement such website usability concept before you build a website.

It may be hard to redesign later, not to mention it'll take more time and you'll have other issues at hand.

In essence, designing for natural consumption should work best: it involves clear information, no distractions and positive user experience.

It also goes inline with various values that you provide to your visitors. The more valuable your website/product is to the people, the more likely they'll stick around and do what they and you want.

Rounding up

Ideally, you need to at least think about the way the information is presented on the website (site, page structure/layout). You can rewrite the text later. In fact, you will have to test your website copy and rewrite it for better effect, so you can simply focus on the page layout first-hand.

But what you need to do as soon as possible is to make it obvious for your visitors where to go next.



Great post Yuri. I really like the hunting analogy as it's exactly what we do when searching for information. Flowing water might be more like how we browse or spend time on a specific site.

Just as the shape of the river bed and the pattern of rocks within control how the water will flow, you can structure things on your site to control the natural flow of how people interact with your site.

Thanks for all the great resources too.

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