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Visual Attention in Newspaper versus TV-Oriented News Websites

William J. Gibbs and Ronan S. Bernas

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 4, Issue 4, May 2009, pp. 147-165

Article Contents


Major newspapers and TV news providers each uniquely represent their traditional media origins online. While these representations may be perceptual to users, we observed no differences in measures (number of fixations, fixation duration, gaze time, and saccade rate) of ocular behavior resulting from type of site. We expected the measures to differ by site type but this expectation was unfounded, at least for a free-form browsing task. However, this is an area for additional research because it is possible that differences in these metrics would be observed had participants performed a visual search for a specific target under a time constraint.

As one might expect, participants fixated mostly in content areas of the page, areas D and E of Figure 1. On TV-oriented sites most fixations concentrated in regions B, C, and D. TV-oriented homepages presented a high concentration of text links in the upper portion of the screen and, generally, their placement was consistent across sites. Consequently, participants fixated in those areas. Conversely, when participants search newspaper sites they had more fixations in region E, where content and links were located. Moreover, newspaper sites use headlines throughout the page as a primary navigation to news stories. From these observations we surmise the following: (a) even for free-form browsing, the placement of content and the means of accessing it (link groupings) were the primary factors that directed attention, more so than site navigation and extraneous content; (b) for all participants, most initial fixations occurred in the browser bar (region A) and in the site branding area (region B), which participants appeared to use to orient themselves to the page; and (c) participantsí initial fixations occurred in the upper portions of the screen and thus it seems probable that one might support a more efficient information search for news stories by placing link groupings directly below these areas. This seems especially important for newspaper sites that use headlines as primary navigation, which are dispersed over the page.

Scan paths on newspaper homepages exhibited more across-user variability than those on TV homepages. This finding revealed differences in how newspaper and TV-oriented homepages support navigation to news content (top stories). The TV-oriented homepages presented lists of text links whereas the newspaper homepages used headlines as primary navigation, which produced less concentrated visual attention.

If we can assume that the purpose of a site homepage is to provide users the most efficient access to a limited number of top news stories, then the observed variability intimates that the information search was less optimal on newspaper sites. Researchers (Chi, Pirolli, Chen, & Pitkow, 2001) have noted that users forage for information by navigating Web links. Concentrating links in one area of the screen, as on TV-oriented sites, appeared to serve several useful functions. First, as observed, link groupings attracted user attention and served as a focal point of navigation. Second, the link listings grouped items of similar functionality into a single prominent area of the display and they conveyed to users what stories the news editors deemed as most newsworthy. Third, the links were easily scanned (visually) and their proximity to each other may have provoked usersí interest in stories that they would have otherwise missed. It is also worth noting that the total viewing time was slightly longer on TV-oriented sites. While speculative, it is possible that link groupings offer a focal point for navigation and, at the same time, engender more thorough reading. On the other hand, using headlines as primary navigation, as on newspaper sites, induced variability in how different users directed their attention. This resulted in more dispersed visual traces, with the eye traversing a wider area of the display. Newspaper sites could potentially reduce variability in visual attention and provide an easily scanned list of top news stories by grouping links consistently in upper regions of the page. This navigation structure could be used in addition to the current headlines navigation and it may provide a more efficient means of navigation and perhaps more focused reading. Future research would be needed to examine the extent to which users use link grouping versus headlines navigation.

In general, we believe that eye-tracking and the methods used in the study to observe attention allocation patterns offer usability practitioners valuable tools to assess product usability. Overall, eye-tracking helps practitioners evaluate the extent to which the visual display elements presented on many interactive systems enhance or detract from the user experience.

Usability engineers have used eye-tracking for many years because, among other things, it affords product developers information about where users focus attention as well as what fails to get their attention. Eye movement data provide developers information pertaining to the efficiency of visual searches, how users process visual information while interacting with systems, and the factors contributing to failed searches (Bojko, 2006). These data can help usability practitioners investigate the efficiency with which experts and novices process visual information and how users progress from novice to expert. Moreover, eye-tracking offers a quantifiable means to verify observations obtained with other usability methods. For example, when conducting usability tests on news Websites, we often use software to record mouse-clicks, Web page changes, and time on tasks, among other things. These techniques, used in conjunction with eye-tracking data, enable us to observe, for example, what attracts user attention between mouse-clicks or the visual elements that may have influenced a userís decision to click one link over another. Between mouse-clicks, pages changes, and other such events, usersí attention shifts frequently as they process extensive amounts of information. Eye-tracking data help make these events salient, which ultimately enables practitioners to improve the usability of products and the overall user experience.

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