Publication: Eyetracker III at The Poynter Institute.
Using sophisticated optical technology, researchers have studied the eye movements of online news readers in “Eyetracker III,” the third such major study Poynter has undertaken with university research partners to learn how people read online.
In the first study, done in 1990, researchers studied how readers looked at print editions of newspapers. In the second (1999-2000), researchers from Poynter and Stanford studied the eye movements of people reading the news on first-generation news sites – and found readers were drawn first to text.
In late 2003, with much less intrusive electronic tracking technology built into computers, Poynter, working with the Estlow Center for Journalism and New Media, studied the eye movements of 46 online news readers. Researchers electronically captured the intricate patterns that a reader’s eyes trace while scanning online content, then pause to zero in on items of interest.
Here are excerpts from some of the key findings as published on Eyetracker’s overview page:
At the core: Homepage layout
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.
Want people to read, not scan? Consider small type
Smaller type encourages focused viewing behavior (that is, reading the words), while larger type promotes lighter scanning. In general, our testing found that people spent more time focused on small type than large type. Larger type resulted in more scanning of the page -- fewer words overall were fixated on -- as people looked around for words or phrases that captured their attention.
This was especially the case when we looked at headline size on homepages. Larger headlines encouraged scanning more than smaller ones. ...
Partial viewing of headlines, blurbs found to be common
We found that when people look at blurbs under headlines on news homepages, they often only look at the left one-third of the blurb. In other words, most people just look at the first couple of words -- and only read on if they are engaged by those words. ...
With a list of headlines on a homepage, we can see where people looked with eyetracking -- and again, most often it's the left sides of the headlines. People typically scan down a list of headlines, and often don't view entire headlines. If the first words engage them, they seem likely to read on. On average, a headline has less than a second of a site visitor's attention.
For headlines -- especially longer ones -- it would appear that the first couple of words need to be real attention-grabbers if you want to capture eyes.
The same goes for blurbs -- perhaps even more so. Our findings about blurbs suggest that not only should they be kept short, but the first couple of words need to grab the viewer's attention.
Where's your navigation?
While testing several homepage designs, we varied the placement of a navigation element: top (under the flag or logo), left column, and right column.
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. In a survey of 25 top news sites, we found 11 that used top position navigation. The other 14 used left navigation. Seven of the 25 used left and top navigation elements. None of the 25 sites we surveyed used right side navigation. It's rare, but you can find right navigation in the news website world.
It might surprise you to learn that in our testing we observed better usage (more eye fixations and longer viewing duration) with right-column navigation than left. While this might have been the novelty factor at play -- people aren't used to seeing right-side navigation -- it may indicate that there's no reason not to put navigation on the right side of the page and use the left column for editorial content or ads.
What about article layout, writing style?
Shorter paragraphs performed better in Eyetrack III research than longer ones. Our data revealed that stories with short paragraphs received twice as many overall eye fixations as those with longer paragraphs. The longer paragraph format seems to discourage viewing.
Most news website article pages present stories in a single column of text, but a handful of sites -- like IHT.com and TheHerald.co.uk -- mimic newspaper layout and present articles in two or three side-by-side columns. Is this as readable as the traditional (for the Web) one-column article format?
Eyetrack III results showed that the standard one-column format performed better in terms of number of eye fixations -- in other words, people viewed more. However, bear in mind that habit may have affected this outcome. Since most people are accustomed to one-column Web articles, the surprise of seeing three-column type might have affected their eye behavior.
What about photos on article pages? It might surprise you that our test subjects typically looked at text elements before their eyes landed on an accompanying photo, just like on homepages. As noted earlier, the reverse behavior (photos first) occurred in previous print eyetracking studies.
Finally, there's the use of summary descriptions (extended deck headlines, paragraph length) leading into articles. These were popular with our participants. When our testers encountered a story with a boldface introductory paragraph, 95 percent of them viewed all or part of it.
When people viewed an introductory paragraph for between 5 and 10 seconds -- as was often the case -- their average reading behavior of the rest of the article was about the same as when they viewed articles without a summary paragraph. The summary paragraph made no difference in terms of how much of the story was consumed.
Just over 20 percent of the leading news websites regularly use summary paragraphs with articles.
Text for facts; multimedia graphics for unfamiliar concepts
Overall, we observed that participants were more likely to correctly recall facts, names, and places when they were presented with that information in a text fomat. However new, unfamiliar, conceptual information was more accurately recalled when participants received it in a multimedia graphic format.
So what does this mean? While overall we did see a slight, although not statistically significant, increase in information recall from text stories, we should note that most of our recall questions were about facts, names, and places. Story information about processes or procedures seemed to be comprehended well when presented using animation and text. A step-by-step animation we tested supported this idea.
We also observed that most participants attended to only two forms of media at a time. For example, in one of our testing situations users were presented with audio, still images, and written captions. We observed that they directed their attention to the audio and images. Important information in the photo captions were not read by many.
The bottom line is that the best journalists working in multimedia environments know how to make good choices about the presentation of story information. As demonstrated in this research, some information is best conveyed by the use of good, descriptive writing. Other information is better explained graphically.