Return to: GROK Dot Com 9/01/2001

The Eyes Have It!

You don’t need me to tell you that you can't always predict human behavior. Take “eye-tracking”- the way your eyes move as you search for information. You pick up a newspaper; your eyes go for the pictures first. So it should follow the same thing will happen when you sit in front of a computer screen, right? Well, the
Stanford-Poynter Project dudes discovered that when folks read news online, their eyes went for text first, particularly captions and summaries, and graphics only later. Sometimes much later. Sometimes not at all! This made a lot of commercial writers happy. It also heralded a new phase of inquiry: how do folks scan websites for information?

Should you care about this stuff? Sheesh, am I green? If you know how folks gather information visually from their browser windows, you've got a powerful design tool you can use right now to support your mission of persuading your visitors to take the action you want.

When a user lands on a web page, she gives the display a quick scan that starts in the top left of the window, moves quickly across the center to the right, then returns leftward, again crossing center1. All this happens in seconds, without the user necessarily fixing her gaze until she reaches the center of the display as she's coming back2. It also usually happens without her being aware of it.

She's on a preliminary scouting mission, an effort to quickly orient herself within the context of a page, before she makes the conscious effort to engage with the information.

How Can I Use This?

· Your logo should be one of the first elements the user encounters at the top of the page (so make sure it's one of the first things that loads). This is your identity, and along with the url, lets your user know where she's landed.

· Global navigation schemes work well here, as do in-site search features (if you use them) - they provide the preliminary assurance of general organization and can serve as back-up.

· Make sure your USP is clear and prominent.

Jared Spool's User Interface Engineering group has discovered that a user's gaze ultimately fixes in the center of the screen, then moves left, then right, a pattern of visual fixation that was true of both new and experienced users3. A user fixed on areas other than the center only when she was looking for additional information. The team also found users pretty much ignored the bottom of the screen and seemed to interact peripherally with the right area (folks use their scroll bar without obviously looking at it!).

How Can I Use This?

· Clearly the center area of the screen is prime real estate, the "active window" where you will either succeed or fail in persuading your visitor. This is the first place your visitor makes a conscious effort to engage with you. When her gaze returns across the screen from its preliminary sortie, you want to make sure you present content that will capture her interest and motivate her through the conversion process. If anything on the page distracts her or requires her to disconnect from the center area, she is that much less likely to stay rapt in your powers of persuasion. And if you've learned the Stanford-Poynter lesson, you'll understand your copy is much more important than your images.

· The left side of the screen can function as a "stabilizing window," a place where people look for particular points of reference that can help them locate the items that suit their needs. Comprehensive navigation works well here.

· Even when they remain engaged in the central area, users peripherally attend to the right area. This becomes a valuable space to convey confidence through your assurances, guarantees and testimonials. Calls to Action do well here, too. Notice how Amazon has their Add to Shopping Cart and 1-Click action block in the top right, and below this is their Add to Wish List button. Because the user is peripherally aware of it, she knows it is there if and when she is ready to take that action.

Using this cool eye-tracking stuff, your general order of business is first to orient your visitor, then use your "active window" to keep her attention and persuade her to become a buyer (or subscriber, or whatever your goal is). The other graphic turf on your website is no less important to the overall effort, but your users are simply never going to give it the same visual priority. For an example of how the folks at Future Now integrated the full range of website composition elements in a way that acknowledges how folks scan, pay a visit to

If you know how folks scan, you have a template for placing things on your web pages so your visitors will find a) what they are looking for, b) where they expect to find it, c) in the way that engages them best. Don't think of it as limiting your artistic freedom, think of it as knowledge you can use to meet your customers' needs and thereby increase your conversion rate!

1 It is important to note that this is the pattern for Western culture. The point is cleverly and interestingly made in "What You See Depends On Where You're From." The Micro Computer Trainer. 
2 Human Factors International has a graphic of this pattern.
3 "Testing Web Sites with Eye-Tracking." Will Schroeder. User Interface Engineering.

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Return to: GROK Dot Com 9/01/2001

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