October 17, 2012

It’s all about touch.

People were either intimately involved with the iPad screen while reading during our recent eyetracking study — keeping nearly constant contact while touching, tapping, pinching and swiping to adjust their view — or they carefully arranged a full screen of text before physically detaching as they sat back to read.

This intimate or detached touching behavior was one of the most intriguing findings in Poynter’s new research on tablet storytelling. It’s one of many that can help us define how people want their news.

“Intimate” readers were highly focused. They tended to read one or two lines of text, then make subtle, frequent swipes to move a few lines of text into their field of vision like a teleprompter. This was like a pacing tool that helped them to keep their place in the text. Intimate readers made up a majority of the study, at 61 percent.

Using eyetracking gear, observation and exit interviews, Poynter looked closely as 36 people interacted with real news stories on an iPad. We closely analyzed their reading patterns after they looked at one of three prototypes created for the project.

So that we might look for clear differences, we recruited people in two, distinct age sets: 18-28 year-olds — a group we have been calling “digital natives” because they are among the first adults who don’t have strong recollection of life before digital —  and 45-55 year-olds, or “printnets” referring to one foot in the print world, one foot in the “’Net” world.

Each of the three prototypes created for the study featured the same 20 stories but had different designs for the front page or entryway. One had a “traditional” look and feel, similar to an online newspaper. It had a dominant photograph, a lead headline and headlines for each of the 20 stories in the publication. Content categories were news, sports, business and life. The second prototype was a carousel design with images and headlines for each of the 20 stories. The third was a flipboard design with four images that highlighted one story from each category.

The traditional prototype was the one most similar to what people usually looked at on their tablets. Fifty percent of the readers preferred the carousel design, they said in an exit interview, while 35 percent preferred the traditional prototype, 15 percent liked the flipboard.

An average of 18 items were viewed before people made the first selection to read. This means that some headlines or images on the fronts might have been looked at multiple times before the study participant made a choice to read something by tapping it.

While many text stories were read to completion, an overall average of a minute and a half (98.3 seconds) was spent on the first story a person selected to read. Of the people who did not finish reading a story, they read for an average of 78.3 seconds before leaving the story entirely. We’ve been calling this the “bailer’s point” and it might be a good benchmark for establishing a “gold coin” like a simple pullout quote or visual element that keeps the reader engaged about halfway through a long story. We will write about this in more detail next week.

Readers in the study expressed a strong preference for holding a tablet in horizontal or landscape orientation. Seventy percent said in the exit interview that they preferred that to a vertical or portrait orientation though they will switch between portrait and landscape depending on the content. Their overall choice has a lot to do with the screen dimension for watching videos, they said. These factors are important as news organizations determine the resources they need to devote to creating and design content in multiple modes.

Readers have an overwhelming instinct to swipe horizontally through a full screen photo gallery, regardless of portrait of landscape orientation, as we reported previously.

As with earlier eyetracking studies, people tended to enter a screen through a dominant element, generally a photograph. Faces in photographs and videos attracted a lot of attention.

There was strong reliance on using the browser to navigate between stories, even though navigation tools were also designed into the publication. Sixty-five percent of study participants used the browser back button, rather than the home button or publication nav design. This speaks to the importance of the familiarity of tools — people will default to what they know if it’s available.

Tablet design requires the same sorts of finesse with color, type, image, grid and navigation necessary for print or Web design. But touch … well, that’s the new factor in keeping a reader engaged.

Full results of the study are being discussed at a two-day conference at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism on Thursday and Friday. If you are in the area, you can attend for free, or watch as Friday’s sessions are streamed live. The first live-streamed session begins at 9 a.m. CST Friday with Mario Garcia, a principal in this research project, as he talks about his work around the world with tablet publications and his new ebook, “iPad Design Lab.” The project overview will begin at 11:30 a.m. CST. The major results start at 2 p.m. CST.

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Sara teaches in the areas of design, illustration, photojournalism and leadership. She encourages visual journalists to find their voice in the newsroom and to think…
Sara Dickenson Quinn

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