by Jon Tan

10 Feb 2012

Last year, I (re)discovered scan paths, or the route our eyes follow through interfaces. I’d come across research in the area before, but hadn’t delved in too deep. An important moment was re-reading Dr. Kevin Larson’s article on The Science of Word Recognition.

The roughly Z-shaped path our eyes take when navigating an interface fascinates me. It relates directly to understanding text at the legibility or micro typography level, and composition at the readability, or macro typography level. It aligns with a dual concept I’ve been thinking a lot about: I call it impact versus immersion. Or display versus body. Or emotion versus comprehension.

The immediate, emotional, subconscious feeling we have about an interface when we first see it is powered by the amygdala — one of the oldest parts of the brain also known as the lizard brain — which can receive sensory input and generate an emotional response in us often without the words to describe what it is, or why we feel the way we do.

The utility we find in interfaces creates an emotional response, too, but through function, and delight in use. When the information is legible and readable, the interface’s character becomes invisibly useful. The style fades into the background, and the utility comes to the fore.

It’s a little like perfect service in a restaurant. The expert waiting staff don’t impose, or interrupt the great conversation we’re having with friends, or intimate moment with partners. Our glasses are refilled, and the dishes arrive almost invisibly, gently, and fluently.

I think we’re often designing for both. Composing with scan paths in mind helps us do just that.

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