Eyetrack III – How people scan a site

An interesting (if unscientific) investigation (I won’t call it a study…) into how people look at/scan/browse a Web page was recently conducted by several media agencies. Eyetrack III, sought to answer a few questions of great interest to Web designers:

Is homepage layout effective? … What effect do blurbs on the homepage have compared to headlines? … When is multimedia appropriate? … Are ads placed where they will be seen by the audience?

Their findings, while not scientific, and therefore not very useful, were interesting. I point to it only as food for discussion.

Several intersting observations they made:

  • Smaller type encourages focused viewing behavior (that is, reading the words), while larger type promotes lighter scanning.
  • Dominant headlines most often draw the eye first upon entering the page — especially when they are in the upper left, and most often (but not always) when in the upper right.
  • The eyes most often fixated first in the upper left of the page, then hovered in that area before going left to right. Only after perusing the top portion of the page for some time did their eyes explore further down the page.
  • visual breaks — like a line or rule — discouraged people from looking at items beyond the break
  • Navigation placed at the top of a homepage performed best — that is, it was seen by the highest percentage of test subjects and looked at for the longest duration.
  • Text ads were viewed most intently, of all the types we tested.

Now, as a personal observation, as I read this “investigation”, I got the sense that they are trying to figure out where to place content so that it is most likely to be viewed. Example, they make the statement: “We found that ads in the top and left portions of a homepage received the most eye fixations.”

This is the wrong approach. If this were an actual study, advertisers would soon begin demanding that their ads be placed at the top left of a page. I guarantee that we would start ignoring them there as well. My theory is that the reason they got the most views there is because that is typically where the branding of a Web site goes. I’m willing to be that the user was very annoyed when they found an ad instead of site branding.

Peoples’ viewing patterns will tend to flow where they expect to find content. Write content that people will want to read, and they will read your content! It sounds pretty elementary, but I hear entirely too many conversations about where we should put links and ads and logos so that they get noticed. People go to a Web site hunting for information, and they ignore anything that doesn’t look like the info they are hunting for.

I believe that these findings (er, observations, this wasn’t a study) are the result of the way Web pages are currently being laid out; they way people have come to expect information to appear; rather than some ergonomic, screen reading tendency of the human eye.

If we change the location of content on a Web page to try and make things “more visible” based on the observations of this investigation, I’ll bet we will see a shift in the Eye-scanning patterns of a user.

People will look at the information they are looking for, not what you want them to see. If you don’t have what they are looking for, they will leave. End of story.






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