Wednesday, September 15, 2004

How surfers' eyes scan your site

The Eyetrack III survey tracked the eyes of people as they looked at news web sites. There's a lot of interesting detail on their site that may give web designers and e-marketers some food for thought. The study focused on news-style web sites and aimed to see if there were different viewing and comprehension results for different styles of layout. But the insights go way beyond news site design issues.

The sample used to produce the report was only 46, and most of those sampled were Anglo/Caucasian (apparently eye-shape can defeat the Tobii ET-17 eyetracker that was used). So you can't get any meaningful data about ethnicity or other segmentation such as education. But the big-picture aggregates are interesting, and the heat-maps that are used to display the data are really great.

I got involved in a much more primitive eye-scaning study back in the early 1980s. We were trying to quantify the impact of placing brands at different heights on supermarket shelves, testing the impact of "shelf talkers" (the supermarket shelf equivalent of an ad banner), as well as trying to see what package designs got most eye-attention from passing shoppers. I think we concluded that whatever the results were telling us was exactly what we would have expected anyway, so the testing had little real value. It seems that what Eyestracker III tells us is also pretty much what we would have expected anyway, but it's nice to have it confirmed.

From my perspective, the most interesting observations were on advertising. With web ads getting a clickthrough rate of less than 0.5 percent, the more we know about surfer interactions with ads, the better. Some highlights:

Performance of an ad is very dependent on its placement. Ads in the left and top sections get more attention than those in the right and lower sections of a page:
We found among our test subjects that there were often instances when they did not look directly at ads, even for a fraction of a second. That doesn't mean they didn't see them at all -- in some cases eyes fixated close enough to the ads to be able to view them in peripheral vision; in other cases they looked at ads directly; and in many cases, they didn't see them at all. And placement of ads mattered a lot.

Visual breaks in design can be barriers to ad visibility:
participants tended to avoid ads when a visual barrier of either white space or a border sat between the ad and the editorial content. A border or rule, or a visible area of white space, seemed to stop many people from viewing an ad.

Ads that blend into the page, especially text ads, get more attention:
ads that blended into surrounding editorial content on a news homepage attracted people's eyes more often than ads that featured contrasting colors or designs. If an ad was approximately the same background color as the rest of the page, it received more eye fixations.

The size of an ad has an impact, with large ads performing well:
Larger ads are seen before smaller ones, our observations suggest. The larger ads on homepages do not, however, get viewed for any longer than smaller ads. With the exception of text ads ... all banners of all sizes on homepages were seen, on average, for between 0.6 and 1.6 seconds.

Some other observations in the "well we knew that, didn't we?" category that really could use further detailed study:

  • Ads inset within article text are seen more than most others.

  • Mouseover-expand ads were viewed more than other banner ads.

  • Static ads vs. animated ads revealed mix results.

  • Ad creative quality, content affect viewing behavior.

  • Small pop-ups are quickly viewed, then closed or hidden

  • The Eyetracker III study opens up the potential for a lot of other less generic studies based on the same technology, but with bigger sample groups. It might help answer questions like such as do surfers have different eyepaths depending on their home language or alphabet, and what are those paths? What role does site color scheme play? In e-learning, does animated content really make comprehension or retention faster than static content? And is a picture really worth a thousand words?

    Kudos to the Eyetrack III team for a fascinating study, and even more kudos for providing such a comprehensive insight into it on the dedicated Eyetrack III website.

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