Web Site Design: Are We Doing It Right?

Over the past few years, many graphic designers have shifted from print media to develop web sites for the online medium. In the process, they have applied proven print design techniques, creating sites that look very similar to print media documents. This is great for maintaining a brand image across media; however, a recent study indicates that it may not be the best way to serve an online audience.

The Poynter Institute has released the initial results of an eyetracking study of how people see and use news web sites. In order to determine which elements of a web site caught the reader’s attention, this study used cameras to watch exactly where each reader looked on a computer screen.

Eyetracking studies have been used for many years to measure a wide variety of media, such as print, television, slide presentations, and just about any other type of visual communications. In addition to determining which elements attract attention, certain patterns of eye movement indicate that text is being read.

The researchers measured the order each element was seen, the attention span of each element, and how text and graphic links were used to navigate through the site. Although they studied only news sites, some of the results are likely to apply to marketing and commerce sites, as well.

Probably the most surprising finding (shown in table below) was the way readers were attracted to text more than to graphics and photos. Another rather surprising result was how well banner ads scored. With graphics and photos scoring lower than text, it would seem natural for banner ads to score low as well. But it turned out that banner ads attracted more attention than the graphics within articles themselves.

Web Page Element Percent People Viewing the Element
Article text 92%
Article summary briefs 82%
Photographs 64%
Banner ads 45%
Graphics 22%

Also conducted by Poynter, an earlier Eyetrack study of newspaper readers showed that readers are first attracted to photos on a page, then to headlines and text. Since they were expecting similar results with the web study, they were surprised when this new medium showed that web readers use different strategies to read news on the Internet.

There are a number of questions about how the study applies to marketing and commerce sites. The biggest question, of course, is whether people navigate and read a news web site differently from marketing or commerce sites. However, since all web audiences are looking for information, the fundamental techniques of communicating with a target audience will apply.

Many site designers use graphics and photographs familiar to the target audience to help them feel comfortable with the site. These graphics help establish the corporate identity, provide brand recognition, and are used as navigation links.

In addition, many web designers try to balance the hefty use of graphics (on a web page) with rapid download time. The Poynter study indicates that it may not be desirable to use a lot of graphics, but to make more effective use of text elements.

The researchers made a few conclusions beyond the use of text and graphics that can be applied to marketing sites. For instance, readers scroll down pages and spend time viewing text elements “below the fold” as much as they view text higher on the page.

When evaluating personalized sites, they found that people prefer having access to all of the available news, rather than have the site show a limited number of stories based on a profile.

So, what are the “take-aways” from the Poynter study? A few web design tips come to mind:

  • Navigation: Add text links where only graphic links are now used.

  • Readability: Use graphics in ways that do not interfere with reading informative text.

  • Scrolling: Keep articles in one scrolling page, instead of many smaller pages.

  • Personalization: Use interest profiles to control the order of links to articles, but allow readers to find all articles.

The Poynter researchers applied proven research techniques to the web and found what many of us had at least suspected about the use of graphics versus text. There is a great deal yet to learn about how people navigate and use the web, which will come from further research.

Although only an indication of what we could learn about marketing and commerce sites, this study is great for newspaper sites. Until studies like this are published, web marketers can conduct their own navigation research using log data to learn more about the individuals coming to their site.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.