Seconds Count in Page Design

No pressure. But you’ve only got a second to grab an online reader’s attention. So put a snappy headline, sans underlining, on the left side of the page. That’s a sample of the findings in a phenomenal new study, posted on the Poynter Institute website, that uses eye-tracking to discern how viewers scan a Web page.

Although I do not yet have the technical savvy to create a web page, I understand design principles from my days in print-based graphics. So this morning I’m putting off my preplanning for the blogging class that I will coordinate in January to explore the nuances of online design.

The study “observed 46 people ( … in San Francisco … ) for one hour as their eyes followed mock news websites and real multimedia content.” Among the findings of what the authors described as a preliminary analysis:

1. Think upper left. Eyes most often started in the upper left-hand quadrant then followed a winding path around and off the page.

2. Small is beautiful. Small type seemed to get more focused viewing behavior, as if the act of discernment compelled attention, while viewers tended to scan and presumably skim bigger headlines.

3. Underline sparingly. It may inhibit reading of short blurbs.

4. Write terse, grabby headlines . Study authors Steve Outing and Laura Ruel write: “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 … On average, a headline has less than a second of a site visitor’s attention.”

5. Text rules. “Our test subjects typically looked at text elements before their eyes landed on an accompanying photo,” the authors wrote. Single-column text, displayed in short paragraphs, was preferred.

6. Place ads to be read. Ads placed top and left worked best. Right and bottom ads got less attention. “We noticed that when an ad was separated from editorial matter by either white space or a rule, the ad received fewer (eye) fixations than when there was no such barrier,” the authors wrote. “Article ads that got seen the most were ones inset into article text,” as was done at roughly half of the 25 sites used as a comparison group.

The entire report is available via a 340-page PDF. Thanks to all those involved in making public such a tremendous resource. I was pointed to the study by Unmediated.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media