Looking Back at EyeTrack: Poynter’s History of Studying Reader Habits

Nearing the release of EyeTrack07 results this month, Poynter takes a look at how it all began.

By Sara Quinn

There are a lot of assumptions out there about how people
read news.

“No one reads jumps. Everyone knows that,” said someone in a
workshop at Poynter a few weeks ago. “Is that true?” I asked her. “And how can
you know for sure?”

The assumptions become even more broad when it comes to
pinpointing similarities and differences in reading news in print and online: “Online readers jump around, but they don’t really read much.” Or, “People
start at the top of the story in print and read straight to the end.”

It’s interesting to speculate on these things — we all do — but it’s tough to draw conclusions without a systematic look at general patterns
of reading — especially when comparing such diverse formats as print and
online, broadsheet and tabloid.

A systematic look — that’s what Poynter EyeTrack07 is all
about. It’s the largest of four eye-tracking studies conducted by Poynter and
the first with the distinct focus of comparing print and online news reading.

We’ve almost finished analyzing the data. Key findings will
be released at the American Society of Newspaper Editors
conference in Washington, D.C., on March 28. The full debut of the findings will
take place April 10 to 12 at a Poynter conference in St. Petersburg, Fla.

To give you a little background, this was a test of 600
regular readers of news. That’s a large number in the research world, and it
was necessary in order to get what we needed. We wanted to look through
readers’ eyes as they read live publications to see what attracted and held
their attention. A second part of the study involved six versions of a
prototype and an exit interview, which gave us insight into comprehension, and
retention of information.

Using eye-tracking equipment we noted the number of times readers viewed more than 350 specific elements, such as headlines, photos,
cutlines, stories, graphics, blogs, listings and ads.

The data totals more than 102,000 “eye-stopping events.”
That’s research speak, but it means we’ve watched every eye movement of
600 readers over the course of about 9,000 minutes of reading 30 days’ worth of
news publication.

We conducted the study in four U.S. markets, working with
the St. Petersburg Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune in Minnesota,
the Philadelphia Daily News in Pennsylvania and the Rocky Mountain News in
Denver, Colo. Each subject read the actual publication for 15 minutes, then
read a prototype for another five minutes.

You may reserve a copy of
the EyeTrack07 report and find more details about the upcoming conference at
eyetrack.poynter.org. Go there to get a
glimpse of the project in a video as well, while we continue to crunch the data.

To understand the basis for EyeTrack07, we’d like to walk you through Poynter’s first
groundbreaking EyeTrack study, Eyes on the News. It is still used in newsrooms and classrooms as a teaching model. A major part of this year’s study is seeing if we can support the major findings of our first study.

Eyes on the News was directed by Drs.
Mario Garcia and Pegie Stark Adam in 1991. Garcia, a publication and Web design
consultant and adviser for EyeTrack07, is the founder of Poynter’s visual journalism program and currently
a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board. Stark Adam also consults with
news organizations, teaches at Poynter and co-directed EyeTrack07.

In this e-mail Q&A, Garcia offers background on that study, how
it has been used by the industry and ideas for future Poynter research.

1.) How did the idea for Eyes on the News first come about?

We wanted to have specific information concerning how
readers read. Up to that point, all one could do was to present pages to a
group and then ask: Where did you read first? Second? Third? Obviously, a very
nonscientific way of reporting reader preferences, as many subjects always
mentioned what they thought were smart answers. With EyeTrack we were able to
reveal actual eye movement, which could not lie. You either looked or did not
look at a story or photo. This is why our first EyeTrack was so revealing, and
such a turning point for editors and designers. Still is. Our findings of then
are just as valid today.

[Click here for more of the first study's findings. (You'll have to scroll down a bit.)]

2.) What was it that you hoped to find?

Actually, we were very interested in the impact of color –
which many used to question at the time. Also wanted to know if photos truly
have the impact that we now know they have. So color and photography were the
main elements of our early research.

3.) You began with a short list of research questions but
came away from it with many more observations about reading behavior. What
surprised you most?

There were truly few surprises: Photos did extremely well,
so did graphics and bold headlines. To me, personally, the fact that color was
not as important as content was a revelation.

4.) One of your initial questions was how color affected
reading. How have you seen the use of color change in newspapers since the
study?

Color has gone from extravagant and decorative as a design
element, to functional and intelligent. We no longer need to splash what I
called “Carmen Miranda hats” all over a page, simply to say to readers: We’ve got
color here! So, now color is used to
enhance, to highlight, to separate or to create hierarchies, which is all good
to aid the reading process. And, of course, there is always color as a branding
element, extremely important for both print and online editions.

5.) How have you seen your research used over the past 15 years?

I continue to be pleasantly surprised at how editors and
designers worldwide quote our EyeTrack research and, most importantly, how
they apply it. Page architecture, use of photos, color and hierarchy have all
been highly impacted by our studies. This new EyeTrack research should even be
more important, as these are challenging times, and we need to know all we can
about reading patterns for both print and online.

6.) Was your concept of a marriage of words and images (called WED for Writing, Editing and Design) reinforced and further developed by the findings of Eyes on the News? How so?

WED was sort of waiting for EyeTrack to validate it as a
concept that is at the foundation of good packaging, good editing and good
design. EyeTrack, in fact, told us: Keep concentrating on the writing and the editing,
and then here is how that should be packaged for more effective visual
presentation and absorption. A win-win situation, WED and EyeTrack.

7.) How did the research inform your own design and
interests?

I know that after the first EyeTrack, I concentrated on head
sizes, story structuring and paid tremendous attention to the text aspects of
design.

8.) You’ve been instrumental in so much of Poynter’s research
efforts. Why is this research important for Poynter and for the industry?

Well, Poynter has the tools, the talents and the platform to
do this well. Let’s face it, there is not a great deal of reading research
conducted, specifically for newspapers. … It is my hope that we will continue to do that for years to come. In
addition, when the research is done, Poynter simply does not report it and move
on. We use the research to update our teaching. EyeTrack has become a
centerpiece of how we teach writing and design here.

9.) We’re looking at different sizes of newspapers in the
current study. How do you see newspapers changing as far as size and format?

No question in my mind: Now we begin to see the “narrowing”
of the American newspaper, and we see the tabloidization of the world press.
Small is “it.” We will have smaller newspapers in this country, and, especially,
Berliner (or smaller broadsheet) formats.

10.) What does the future reader of 2020 look like? How do
they access and travel through news?

Hard to tell. So much will happen in those 13 years, but the
newspaper will be a part of a multiplatform environment of news communication.
I see the telephone playing a key role, and even iPods and other small,
handheld objects. And, of course, the reader of 2020 barely remembers life
without Google. They are impatient, extremely interested in news, and tech
savvy, surrounded by all the gadgets and looking for stories on what the next
gadget is all about.

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