An eye-tracking study delivers eye-grabbing conclusions
By David Walker (Google profile)
A recent study contains good news for anyone who believes in the importance of a Web page's text. It also highlights the sharp differences between Web pages and other text media, such as newspapers and books. And it should send a warning message to anyone who has spent money on the sort of fancy Web design that emphasises slick, beautiful, bandwidth-hogging graphics.
The study comes from the US-based Poynter Institute, which for many years has studied the ways that people read newspapers. Many such studies rely on what people say they do - a notoriously unreliable technique. But Poynter has made great use of "eye-tracking" studies, literally taking little movies of people's eyes as they move across a page. Strapped into this equipment, users look like victims of a particularly messy Borg assimilation. But the equipment lets the Poynter Institute researchers find out what users really do. Or at least what they really do when they're wearing half a pound of head-mounted video equipment.
Going for text, users ditch newspaper rules
When Poynter has studied newspaper readers, it has found that photos and graphics catch the eye first. That's why newspapers like this one have been slowly increasing the proportion of space they devote to photos and graphics. They turned to the Web to study readers of online news - people who visited news-related sites at least three times a week.
The Poynter Institute found its Web research subjects shared one unexpected characteristic. When they went to news sites, they read text before they looked at photos or other graphics. "Briefs or captions get eye fixations first, by and large", reported the Institute on its site. "The eyes of online news readers then come back to the photos and graphics, sometimes not until they have returned to the first page after clicking away to a full article." This is exactly the opposite of the behaviour Poynter has seen in many years of newspaper eyetracking studies.
It would be dangerous to assume from this study that all Web users work this way. Web news sites use graphics more sparingly than many other types of sites, and the study subjects were by definition enthusiastic online readers.
No, what's most fascinating about the Poynter study is simply that an audience that behaved one way when exploring printed documents could behave quite differently on the Web.
In other words, Web design assumptions based on print media experience can lead you to exactly the wrong conclusion.
When will designers accept the written word?
A great deal of Web site design today seems informed by a print media sensibility. Many of today's Web designers cut their teeth in print design. They're trying to prompt Web site visitors with elaborate and subtle graphical clues, the sort that they believe work in print design. You can find surprisingly little evidence that this approach succeeds.
The evidence certainly points to the conclusion that many Web site visitors navigate and gather information by reading words, not looking at pictures. The Poynter study adds just a little more depth to what we already know. Words play a key role in communicating with your visitors.
You have to use the right words, of course. Web site users don't want long essays; they tend to be pursuing very specific needs. In Jakob Nielsen's words: site visitors don't read; they scan. They want pointed snippets of information. They will likely keep their visit brief: the Poynter subjects averaged six minutes per site.
Why are so few Web design firms touting their expertise in Web copywriting? Why do so few companies seem to care about using words that will engage, instruct and prompt their users into action? Is it because they don't know how to do it, because they don't care about results, or because none of their clients are smart enough to ask?