Eye movement and web page layout?

Subject: Eye movement and web page layout?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 20 Mar 2004 20:28:47 -0500

Jim Wulterkins wondered: <<I've been googling away for a while, trying to find any studies that demonstrate how the eye moves around a Web page when the page first loads. I have some vague memory of a study showing that most "western people" (or whatever) start in the top left corner, moves across the top of the page, down the right side, and end up somewhere in the middle. I have another vague memory telling me that the first thing the eye moves to is images, rather than text.>>

What you report is certainly "conventional wisdom", which means that while it's likely to be true in general, there are a variety of other factors that can affect the actual results. For example, if you load a block of text at the bottom right corner of the screen, then delay several seconds before loading an image just above and to the left of that text, then the text will be seen (and read) first, followed by the image. This is obviously the reverse pattern from the general rule.

If you display a moving image anywhere on the screen, it's going to draw the eyes, possibly interfering with the "usual" pattern of eye movement. (Which is why people who use animated GIFs and title crawls purely because they can should be coated in maple syrup and staked out over anthills. <g>) If people using a dial-up connection turn off the display of images, then they won't look at images first--or possibly ever. If your audience is blind, the sequence will be determined by how their screen reader parses the page. And so on.

There's also the "learning" and "familiarity" factor. If you learn to expect something in a specific location because "everyone does it", and that one thing is what you're looking for, then you'll look right at that location and ignore the rest of the display. Whether that location is theoretically most efficient becomes less important than the fact that people have learned to look in a specific place.* This is why most sites now place the Search function at the top right or near the top left of a page: that's where this function appears most often, and designers take advantage of that familiarity.

* I recall reading some research--buried in the boxes resulting from moving my office--that demonstrated that a navigation panel on the right side of the screen was most efficient because (if memory serves) it doesn't get in the way of the left to right reading of text. While that may be true, it's such an unexpected location that I expect many users would take some time getting used to the design, and might never grow comfortable with it. When theory contradicts experience, experience often wins.

<<I'm interested because I want to see what the relationship is between my idea of good design and what research says is good design.>>

I recommend having a look at http://usability.gov/guidelines (the page wasn't loading tonight when I tried to go there, likely due to a problem with my ISP, so I can't confirm the URL). This site hosts the results of guidelines based on an extensive review of the research literature on Web design spearheaded by several STC members at the National Cancer Institute. I attended their talk at last year's STC convention in Dallas, and their study sounded very good indeed.

Basically what they did was examine a wide range of heuristics and "best practices" guidelines that are commonly promoted, then had a panel of experts (including several STC Fellows with impeccable reputations in academic research) rate how well current research supported the guidelines. The result was a series of guidelines, each ranked by how reliable a guide it was based on the current state of our knowledge. I liked the approach and the results (i.e., they confirmed my prejudices and didn't cause me to overturn too many of my dearly held beliefs). YMMV.

--Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)


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