Eye tracking: because web analytics aren’t detailed enough yet.

Design is all about directing eye movement. The designer uses a big image here to draw the reader’s first glance, and then positions a big headline near the image to make it clear that the text and the image belong together. White space separates elements to make organization clear, and sizing helps to convey importance. Every decision a designer makes is about communicating to the viewer where he or she should look next. It makes sense, then, that eye tracking would be an incredibly important part of design research.

If you aren’t familiar with it, eye tracking is a form of research which utilizes cameras to study a person’s viewing of a site or publication. Technology allows researchers to study exactly what viewers look at, giving them tremendous insight into user interaction with the web/print.

Thanks to organizations like the Poynter Institute, which have put a lot of time and money into eyetracking studies, designers have some broad guidelines to work from, like:

  1. In print, pictures attract more eyes than text. After images, the next most visible elements tend to be headlines and ads. On the web, headlines and cutlines attract more attention than images.
  2. Short blocks of text are more read than long blocks of text. Even those short blocks may not be read from start to finish, but readers will generally make it through more of a short piece of text than a long one.
  3. Print readers are more likely to read content from top to bottom, whereas online readers are just as likely to scan material.
  4. Color attracts attention. Colorful images are more visible than small images, mug shots, or black and white images.
  5. Ads placed among editorial content perform better than standalone, full-page ads. Color, motion and placement all contribute to the visual attractiveness of the ads.
  6. On the web, viewers typically enter the page in the upper left corner of the page (the standard position for the site logo). In print, viewers enter through an eye-grabbing image or, in the absence of a graphic, a headline.

Google’s own research into the design of its search results confirms much of this. In a study of their Places pages, they confirmed that viewers tend to start in the upper left corner and move, left to right in shorter lines, down the page from there. Thumbnail images help to attract viewer eyes even to listings a bit farther down the page. Listings at the top get the most clicks, but lower listings can get clicks, too, if they give the viewers more content—reviews and contact info, for example—to click on.

Eyetracking continues to be widely used, but I’m wondering if there’s anything left to study in terms of web viewing/print viewing. I thought about mobile web eye tracking, but I’m certain that has to have been done by now. The thing is, we’ve already got pretty consistent information about where to place elements on a page for optimal viewing, and that information hasn’t really change. Logos still go on the top left corner, navigation goes at the top of the page or along the left-hand side… Is there anything left to study, in terms of design?

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