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Way off track

Poytner's eye track findings are just plain wrong

By Alan Jacobson, Brass Tacks Design

God was in his heaven on the dawn of May 22. I sprang out of bed that early morning ready to tackle the day's work, confident that life, while busy with variables, had at its foundation a handful of absolutes. The earth would continue to spin counterclockwise on its axis. The sun would cross the sky to set in the west. My kids would spend the day deconstructing the house until it resembled Hue after the Tet Offensive.
Oh, and I could rely on my skills and instincts, and the collected wisdom of generations of designers before me, to do good work. It was a given, I figured, that in the coming hours I'd design Web sites that my clients – and more importantly, their readers – would find irresistible.
Such was my life, friends, in the sweet, simple days of yore. I made some coffee. I sat before my Mac. I slipped into the Zone.
At midmorning the mail arrived. I took a break from the screen to go through the pile. In it was the latest edition of Editor & Publisher. I flipped its pages idly. And my eyes fell on an article inside, an item headlined “The good word.”
The story described a study of Web site readership habits conducted by the Poynter Institute and Stanford University. Its researchers had found that Web surfers all but ignored graphics and photos and animation and the myriad other visual elements that make up butt-kicking Web pages, and instead dived straight into plain-text news copy.
Often, it said, test subjects would seize on the text of an article and follow it to the end, through numerous screens, forsaking the accompanying art until they'd finished. Even when they didn't wade that deep, and opted for bite-sized briefs over full articles, they tended to read the text before they paid much mind to the rest of the package.
My hands trembled as I read this. My internal gyro went haywire. I had to sit down, breathe deep, and drink a protein shake to center myself.
The way I read it, the big brains at Poynter and Stanford were saying the earth was flat.
For years, newspaper and Web site design has been guided by a central assumption: that readers will more likely read text if it's part of a greater whole, performing its function in concert with photos and other graphic elements. These visuals, as any designer knows, not only relate details and setting and context, but serve as big come-ons to the lackadaisical browser. Poynter said as much in a famed 1990 study it called “Eyes on the News,” which found that a newspaper reader's eyes fixed first on photos, and later on the stories they illustrated.
So the message I took away from my first reading of that E&P story was either that we've just plain been wrong, or that a reader's habits change dramatically when presented a computer screen instead of a printed page.
I took the article upstairs and read it again. The study's subjects, it said, were rigged in Frankensteinian headgear that followed their eye movements, so that the researchers could tell what they looked at, and for how long. Hmmmmmm.
But another fact loomed larger on my second pass through the story: Only 67 people participated in the experiments. That hardly seemed a big enough group to yield any firm conclusions about much of anything. I noticed something else, too: Most of the 67 were self-professed newsaholics who joined the study by answering online newspaper ads – who, in other words, were already habitual newspaper Web site readers, rather than members of the Internet-using general public. As I mulled this over, my shock began to give way to skepticism. Before I paid the news any mind, I decided, I had to read the study itself.

I found it on the Poynter Web site. Of the test's 67 readers, I learned, only 14 were examined for their behavior in front-page attention. These 14 saw fewer than seven pages that contained a single photo.

At this point, my skepticism was replaced by outright disappointment. How on earth had a study of too few subjects, of too narrow a persuasion, reading too little, made it into public view?

Clicking through the report just brought more doubt. Of the three sample pages published at the Poynter site, only two had photos – and they, just a single photo each. Pretty tough to test a reader on his preferences for text versus photos if he's got nothing but text to look at, it seemed to me. On top of that, neither of the sample page photos contained the image of a person, which may have been more appealing than what was offered.

I was tempted to toss the magazine in the trash, but I was too irritated to do much but slump in my chair and mutter to myself. My sylvan morning had been wrecked. I was far too distracted to work. I took a walk around the block.

Upon my return it occurred to me that the Poynter/Stanford study might have value that I hadn't initially recognized. True, I believed its research was fatally flawed. Convincing me of its conclusions would take a proper study, involving far more subjects, from a far broader bandwidth of humanity, spending more time at the keyboard.

But when I ignored its conclusions and instead read the report as a description of what was available to readers on the Web, as an indictment of the meager offerings presented to them on their computer screens, it resonated with me. Rather than saying, “People look at text before anything else,” the report might really be saying, “People look at text first because we're not giving them much else to work with.”

“Not only are designs from site to site similar,” John Caserta, former design director for interactive news at the Chicago Tribune, later pointed out, “but a news site's main screen doesn't change from day to day. If there is a hole for a picture, it is generally too small to provide any detail or impact. Headline sizes are the same and site architecture doesn't move.

“This formatting is beneficial in the same way the printed Wall Street Journal is beneficial,” Caserta told me. “It's consistent and items are easy to find. But it also creates a usage pattern that urges users to absorb the most dynamic part of the screen. And in the database-driven news environment, that's the headlines and large type.”

So true. Look at the Web sites the test subjects viewed. They were all dominated by text, even on their front pages.

Caserta figures that the explanation for this sad state of affairs can be found with the industry's years-long parrotry of the Yahoo! page design. Remember when Yahoo! hit the screen? It upended all of the Internet, offered not only a search engine but news, e-mail access, customization. America's hundreds of newspaper sites copied it with abandon. Today, they're completely inbred, a vast family of three-eyed cousins. And, like their common ancestor, they're overly dependent on text.

Bottom line: The Poynter site's samples were typical of contemporary online news design, but they were hardly examples of good online fare. They were read because the reader had no alternative, not because they drew him in.

What the study said, when you dumped the generalizations drawn from its questionable methodology, when you bypassed hype like the E&P story, was that most of the sites these few readers visited were lacking in sophistication. It showed where some newspapers are now, not where all of us need to go.

And perhaps that's a worthwhile message. Perhaps, I find myself thinking, the industry needs such a reminder that its Web offerings bite. Perhaps the study will get some debate going about the weaknesses in online design, and perhaps all the talk will spur some papers to more adventurous approaches. Perhaps we'll wind up with a grand sweep of pages that delight the eye, as well as inform the mind.

There will be hurdles. A lot of newspaper bosses don't mind the way things are. They've grown accustomed to low visual standards. They're content with small online staffs. Both, after all, are cheap.

There will continue to be copycat, one-size-fits-all thinking among some designers – people who, as John Caserta points out, would be quick to agree that what's good for Wired is not necessarily good for National Geographic, but who lose sight of the dangers of formulaic thinking when it comes to online design.

And, most worrisome, there's the chance that the Poynter/Stanford “results” will stick. It could be that some vowel-buying news site honchos will read the E&P story as a vote of confidence in the weak, unimaginative crap they foist on their audiences. It could be that many others, even the skeptical, won't bother to look past the magazine piece to the study itself, and thus won't recognize it for the flimsy exercise it is. It could be that right now, a skittish newspaper exec somewhere is brandishing the E&P story as he informs a budding design genius that everything he knows is wrong.

That's what most unsettles me these days – that, and the sound of my kids tearing through sheetrock. There is a frighteningly good chance that that the Poynter/Stanford study could actually prove counterproductive to good work. That it could retard, rather than advance, the industry it purports to measure.

Here's hoping it does the opposite.

You can reach Alan Jacobson at

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