Writer. Warning: opinions. My lawyer advised a disclaimer, but didn't include any jokes to go with. Damned if I can think of any either.

Legibility and On-Line Web Usability Testing

I’ve been thinking a lot about web usability since I saw those fancy F-shaped heatmap thingies (credit Jakob Nielsen) that have been making the rounds recently. Though the study was published in 2006, which is the late Cretaceous period in Internet terms, for some reason it has experienced a resurgence in popularity. I’ve even been walking around telling my clients about it as though I know it to be fact.

Like a squeaky bike drivetrain, though, the sound of the study’s findings has been annoying me a bit, and I feel the urge to stop and have a think about Legibility and On-Line Web Usability Testing, or LOLWUT. Here’s what the Nielsen study’s heatmaps look like:

Does the F-shaped pattern really exist?
Looking at the study, it seems to suggest that users eyeballs traverse a web page in an F-shaped pattern with regularity. Science has long known that eyeballs are basically round, fleshy robots who perform in a predictable way regardless of what their owners want them to do. I have explained this many times to Cheryl, who doesn’t always approve of where my gaze lands.

This, in turn, suggests that web pages should be designed in that shape in order to facilitate easy reading. Yet, in a later study on “banner blindness”, Nielsen found that users eyeballs were very good at avoiding anything that looked like an advertisement. The later study also found three things that almost always draw attention.

Things people like to look at
According to Nielsen, the three things that get attention are:
– Plain text
– Faces
– Cleavage and other “private” body parts

So, shock of shocks, people like to read text, look at other people, especially other people’s boobs or other naughty bits, and they will almost never look at anything that is advertisement-shaped. This leaves Nielsen with an uncomfortable conclusion, which is that the most effective web advertisements will look like regular content, and probably contain a face and some cleavage. It’s uncomfortable because it sort of makes it sound like those who wish to advertise on the web should trick their readers if they want maximum efficiency.

The F Shape Gets an F
It seems to me that if it is possible to draw eyes to any part of a page with a pair of breasts, then the F-shape must be bogus. I think the F-shape of user’s heatmaps is really just a function of content being F-shaped and not an intrinsic human feature that must be catered to. After all, English words go left to right, then top to bottom down a page. Add in a little waning interest as the user heads downward, and you’ve got yourself an F-shape.

Of course, I don’t have an eye-tracking usability test to back me up on this, but I suspect that a heatmap study of japanese newspapers written from right to left and in columns top to bottom would show a much different pattern.

This all underscores the way I approach Internet marketing theory, which is that good content is the best way to get people to pay attention. I just don’t believe that there are any shortcuts. There are some guidelines, but arranging boring content into an F-shape isn’t going to make it less boring.

Throwing in a few photos of naughty parts, on the other hand, might spice things up a bit.

One thought on “Legibility and On-Line Web Usability Testing”

  1. Cynthia LaLuna

    Awesome blog post, Jim!

    So cleavage at the top, and Courier New text at the bottom, and we’re done. Maybe a buttcrack or two in the sidebar.

    Now if I could just get my lawyer clients on board with this…