EyeTrack ’07: New Study Probes Online and Print

The Poynter Institute is launching a new round of eyetrack research aimed at learning how people read and absorb the news. Over the next four months, the team — led by Poynter’s Sara Quinn and Pegie Stark Adam — will test 600 subjects in four U.S. cities. The research, which begins July 24 in Denver, will address critical questions confronting today’s publishers of news, in print and online.

Building on the results of Poynter’s landmark eyetracking research published in 1991 and subsequent eyetracking studies for online, the ’07 study will determine how readers travel through newspaper and Web pages differently, which elements print and online readers are drawn to first, how they enter a page, and how they use navigational cues.  Do readers look at editorial teasers and promos? Do alternative story forms — timelines, summary graphs or information boxes — lead people to read and comprehend more?

“Our goal,” Quinn says, “is to help editors and publishers understand how deeply people are reading, which navigational tools maximize reader understanding and which story forms are most effective in conveying information. Because the study adheres to the highest research standards, we’ll be able to offer industry leaders scientific accuracy on which to base the editing decisions they make every day.”

Using state-of-the-art eyetracking equipment, test subjects will read prototypes and “live” newspapers  — the Rocky Mountain News in this first five-day test — while tiny cameras mounted on specialized glasses record eye movement and general patterns of behavior. “We’re studying real news in real time,” Quinn says. “By using live material, we’re able to test the habits of regular readers and the news sources with which they’re most familiar.”

To code and help analyze the data it gathers this year, Poynter has partnered with the University of Florida and the New York-based research firm, Mediamark. UF coders will spend weeks assigning numerical codes to recorded points of gaze, a tedious but necessary task to ensure scientifically reliable data. Mediamark researchers will interpret and analyze data for unveiling at Poynter and across the country beginning next spring.

Poynter published its first groundbreaking eyetrack study 15 years ago. Working with internationally known newspaper designer Mario Garcia, Pegie Stark Adam assisted in conducting and writing the original study, “Eyes on the News.” It revealed, among other things, that most people enter a newspaper page through the dominant photo, then move to headlines, cutlines and secondary elements before reading the story.  That study established design principles still followed in newspapers around the world.

“In general, text was the last point reached in the reader’s journey,” Adam says. “It was amazing to learn that most readers did not enter through a lead story as many editors assumed.”

Original findings also revealed that newspaper readers see facing pages as one unit and that they read from right to left, lending credence to the belief that right-page advertising is read first. In 1990, color was key and eyetracking proved its solidity as a navigational device. “Today, color is everywhere and utilized in intelligent, new ways,” Adam says. “It will be interesting to see which of our initial findings hold true.”

Poynter’s eyetrack studies of reading online found that many Web readers were drawn first to dominant headlines rather than photos, that they read from left to right and that smaller type promoted focused reading, while larger type encouraged scanning. In general, briefs were not well read, although short paragraphs within larger stories were. The current study will re-examine these observations.

In August, the EyeTrack ’07 team will test at two other news organizations. St. Petersburg Times readers will be tested at Poynter before the team flies to Minneapolis-St. Paul to record the habits of Star Tribune readers.  This fall the team will visit a second tabloid — which one is not yet confirmed — and testing will be completed by the beginning of November.

Said Adam: “The ’07 study goes deeper (than previous studies); with 600 subjects reading real newspapers, Web sites and prototypes, it’s much broader in scope than previous studies. After we published the results of the first study, people asked if readers remembered what they read. Our current study includes a test for comprehension and engagement, so we’ll be able to answer that question as well.”

Poynter Program Assistant Jessica Sandler is a member of the EyeTrack ’07 team. Also assisting are Multimedia Editor Larry Larsen, Instructional & Technology Manager Dave Pierson, A/V Systems Coordinator Jeff Saffan and IT Specialist Sandy Johnakin. The team also includes University of Florida researchers Mary Ann Ferguson and Cristina Popescu, Mediamark research analysts Sharon Polansky and Susan Weiss, and Chief News Scout Anne Glover and Lead Designer Adam Newman of tbt*.

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