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A Copywriter’s perspective on eye tracking


What do 13th Century stained glass artists and 20th Century poet E.E. Cummings have in common? What do they share with Website designers and usability experts? [picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=stained+glass+window&iid=7310001″ src=”5/e/2/4/God_creating_Adam_10ba.jpg?adImageId=8965720&imageId=7310001″ width=”234″ height=”352″ /]

Visual storytelling. You can’t see without reading. You can’t read without seeing pictures. Once you’ve seen (or read) one, you’ll never absorb information in the same way again.

Buffalo Bills (poem) E. E. Cummings

Can you see the rider, the stallion, and the reins?

Both turn storytelling into a visual sweet treat. Placement, color, and implied sound all expand the literal meaning of the word or the telling of the story.  Your fully-engaged imagination chides your intellect to take a back seat for a moment and hold distracting thoughts at bay.

The black and white of reading Websites.

Not the same for Websites, however. In fact, research indicates that the exact opposite is true. The minute we become aware of being pushed along an eye path, the honeymoon’s over. The same is true if the design of the site doesn’t measure up to our visceral experience (i.e., unconscious eye movements). That’s why “Seamless Rules” is the mantra of Website design.

To increase time spent on each page (i.e., “stickiness”) the page needs to be usable or engaging and effortless. Otherwise, we click to another site, app, or technology of choice. We may even step out for a face-to-face encounter with a real person (Imagine!).

In fact, we now know that “reading” a Website is a misnomer. Getting someone to simply “view” a page represents the low-hanging fruit of Web design. This is followed by skimming, browsing, and finally reading (i.e, fully absorbing and considering the content). Unless the site is easy to use and the content easy to absorb, full reading will never take place. Opting out or clicking off will.

Eye-tracking studies by Jakob Nielsen, PhD made that clear in the early days of Web 2.0. In 2006 Dr. Nielsen posted F-Shaped Pattern for Reading Web Content, stating “The biggest determinant for content usability is how users read online – and because people read differently, you have to write differently.”  Online marketing gurus Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg refer to this same point in Call to Action (2005).

Eye tracking usability tests of shopping cart web page

Readable is usable. Code is beautiful.

Our selective “reading” follows a distinct F-shaped pattern: left to right, top to bottom. When I first read of the results and looked at Dr. Nielsen’s compelling images posted to, I wasn’t surprised. In fact, maybe I felt a bit smug that research had caught up with my intuition. Direct mail marketing taught me long ago how and where to place every spec of ad copy to maximize AIDA. The hot spots on Nielsen’s image matched the tactical placement techniques I had learned as a direct mail writer!

  • Attention that hooks readers up front;
  • Interest and Desire that engage a reader’s expectations; and
  • Call to action to direct the very next response.

Interestingly, a recent post by my colleague Andrew Lloyd Gordon caught my attention and raised concern (for us both). An Internet marketing coach based in the UK, Andy related his own experience of reading a report by Webcredible, user research and design experts (Jan. 2010). In Eye tracking – A Short-Sighted Future, Webcredible reports observing a declining trend in eye tracking studies and suggested reasons why (Dec. 2009).

Webcredible’s post included a fascinating video that captures the eye movements of a sample Web page viewer.

As a communicator and creative person, am I bothered by the possible decline? Well, frankly yes. The tool provides an invaluable guide in developing material. Eye tracking also provides a great point of discussion in helping new clients understand what makes interactive marketing so different from writing a brochure or even doing a sales presentation.

Many times, research backs up our strongest creative intuitions. Research also describes how consumers and users often act in ways that run contrary to our professional creative suppositions. Without eye-tracking research, the presentation and discussion can become a bit wobbly.  I don’t need research to tell me that. That’s just experience.

What’s your experience with eye-tracking, readability, and usability? Do you find a downward trend in studies? Do you have your own success stories to share about increasing readability and ROI through eye-tracking? Please post your comments, links or stats here.

P.S. The E.E. Cummings poem is also available in “refrigerator” style from The Poetry Foundation.


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