Web Site Reading Heatmap Published

Jakob Nielsen wrote about how web content is read based on a study he conducted. His summary is as follows:

Eyetracking visualizations show that users often read Web pages in an F-shaped pattern: two horizontal stripes followed by a vertical stripe.

Looking at the heatmap images published on both the study page as well as on the Alertbox article, I feel that Mr. Nielsen may have over-simplified the findings. Maybe it’s just me, but the images seem to demonstrate that our reading method for web content is roughly similar to how we read traditional printed content. While Mr. Nielsen sees the pattern, I see the target.

Again, referring to the heatmap images, it’s obvious that the reader has already an idea of what to look for before even reading the pages. Let’s take the example of the corporate About Us page. This is a very typical way of reading such pages. Basically, readers:

  • Reads the company name
  • Skims through any menu-like links
  • Tries to find out what the company is about
  • Usually gets sick of the promotional self-praises heaped by the first few paragraphs and proceeds to just skim the eye-grabbing contents, ie. titles, headers and stylised texts

Similar behaviour is replicated in the product page example as well:

  • “What is this thing?”
  • “So that’s how it looks like!”
  • “What does it do?”
  • “Bargh, they used too much words…,”. Starts skimming through any header like texts
  • “OK, what else is there?”

Then comes the page where almost all Internet surfers are familiar with; a Google search results page (too bad they didn’t publish any click activity research as well):

  • “Did Google change their header image? Nahh…”
  • Skims through the top three or four results
  • “Wow, only one Sponsored Link! That’s pretty rare…”
  • “Dumm dee dumm… dumm dee dumm… Hmmm! Dumm dee dumm…”

If you think I’m making fun of Mr. Nielsen’s study, you couldn’t be more wrong. I respect Mr. Nielsen and have always been a huge fan of his writing. Personally, I find it very hard to identify any other individual who has contributed more on usability studies.

My point is, the findings reveal a lot more than just an F pattern style of reading. More importantly, it indicated other things such as:

  • User expectation of page content
  • User expectation of page structure
  • The focusing affect of rare elements; ie. images, icons and formatted text
  • Textual attentian span (what kind of text grabs the most attention)
  • Graphical attention span (what kind of images grabs the most attention)
  • Section blindness

The interesting thing is that what is perceived to be “content bypassing” in this study is actually an encouraged behaviour in most speed reading tutorials or courses!

What do you think?