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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


It is important to point out that the findings presented here are not conclusive due to the limitations and scope of this study, which looked at specific news Websites with a unique participant group. In addition, the findings are based on participants performing a free-form browsing task (i.e., looking for a topic of interest). Findings may vary with different types of visual searches. Additional research is required to examine ocular behaviors across larger groups with a greater variety of news Websites and tasks, and for longer time durations.

We sought to answer three main questions: (a) Do measures of visual attention differ by the type of news site (newspaper and TV)? (b) What areas of news site homepages attract visual attention and do those areas differ by site type? and (c) Do scan paths vary as a function of site type?

Visual Attention Allocation Measures and Site Type

We anticipated that the measures of visual attention would differ by type of site, but this expectation was not supported by the data. Previous research (Pan et al., 2004) reported similar findings indicating that different types of Websites did not influence fixation duration. While our results show slight differences between site types, they were not significant. For example, number of fixations, a possible indication of an inefficient information search (Jacob & Karn, 2003) was higher on newspaper sites. Conversely, TV-oriented sites exhibited a tendency toward information and task complexity as measured by fixation duration and saccade rate. We thought that indices of information and task complexity might be higher on the newspaper sites used in the study because of their layouts, with headings and text summaries dispersed over the page.

Given the information task, browsing a home page for a news story of interest, and the metrics used, newspaper and TV-oriented sites influenced ocular behavior comparably. This finding refutes our initial expectation that site type will have distinct influence on ocular measures, with participants experiencing less efficient search and increased information and task complexity on newspaper sites. However, it is plausible that the free-form browse task did not sufficiently stress the visual system and it introduced variability among participants resulting in the lack of differences across site types. Perhaps if participants were instructed to locate a defined visual target in a specific amount of time (e.g., a visual search task), then more pronounced differences would have been observed for these measures.

Areas of Visual Attention and Site Type

We were interested in identifying areas of the display where participants first fixated. Unlike the findings of Goldberg et al. (2002), most participants (60%) fixated initially in the upper portions of the homepages (regions A and B). At the same time, 38% of initial fixations occurred in regions D and E, the body of the document. This suggests that on news homepages while some usersí visual attention may go directly to the body of the document, most will use the navigation or header regions to orient visual searches and/or cue navigation.

Where participants fixated on the display area differed by site type. Moreover, the most central scan paths (see Figures 2 through 7) show eye movement variations illustrated by the shape, density, and location of visual traces. This intimates that participantsí visual attention varied across sites as a function of layout design. With the site homepages used in the study, participantsí eyes attended primarily to text links and text areas in the document body, which is consistent with the findings of the Stanford Poynter Project (2000). Possibly, because users forage for information by navigating Web links (Chi, Pirolli, Chen, & Pitkow, 2001). Visual characteristics of link areas (e.g., positioning, grouping, length, color, underlining, etc.) may have provided salient visual referents that aided information access, despite shifts in layout. Participants attended primarily to news story links in the body of documents rather than site navigational links at the top and left sides of pages.

On TV-oriented homepages, participants fixated most often on regions B, C, and D whereas newspaper homepages had more fixations in region E. In regions B, C, and D, the TV homepages presented a logo and global navigation across the top of the page. Positioned to the far-left or middle-left of the page, the homepages featured a dominant photograph that related to the major news story. In close proximity to the photograph, to its immediate right or left and below it, were listings of links. The sites concentrated these elements in regions B, C, and D.

The layouts of newspaper homepages, to some extent, mirror a newspaper. They presented headlines with summaries and bylines throughout the homepage, which engendered a dispersed visual scan, as depicted in the eye trace figures. The observation that participants fixated in region E more often on newspaper homepages was likely influenced by several factors. First, on homepages, visual attention may be especially drawn to listings of text links (news or top stories) because users seek an efficient means to review and access available stories. The New York Times homepage presented lists of links under More News and On The Blogs that were positioned in region E. In addition, similar to the way TV sites presented links, USA Today listed headlines in close proximity to one another in region E. Finally, the Post Gazette presented a listing of links (top stories) in a scroll box at the top-center of the page and a dominant image directly below the list. To the right of the image and also below the links, headlines with summaries ran down the page into region E. As participants scrolled down, they encountered additional listings of text links located in this same region. Interestingly, of all the sites, the Post Gazette had the fewest number of fixations in regions A and B. Possibly, fewer participants attended to these regions because the Post Gazette presented top story links in a scroll box rather than listing them in a more conventional manner as was done on TV homepages. TV sites, on the other hand, grouped news story links in one general area. It seems plausible that the observed differences with respect to fixation area are mainly influenced by (a) visual attention being attracted to areas with concentration of news story text links in the document body (the TV homepages presented those areas in the upper regions of the page); (b) newsprint homepages used headlines as primary navigation links, which were spread over the page; and (c) with the possible exception of USA Today, the placement of link groupings on newspaper sites varied from site to site more so than on TV homepages. For instance, The New York Times presented news story links in the lower-middle portion of the page, whereas the Post Gazette presented them in the upper-middle.

If number of fixations is considered in conjunction with highly fixated areas, it suggests that TV homepages had central areas of importance and a free-form search was more efficient compared to newsprint pages. Frequent fixations in a specific display area indicated how important viewers perceived that area while increased numbers of fixations overall may signify an inefficient information search (Jacob & Karn, 2003). Based on the visual traces, number of fixations, and results identifying high fixation areas, participantsí visual attention on TV homepages concentrated around link listings in the upper regions of the pages, signaling those areas as highly important. However, when viewing newsprint pages, participants had slightly more fixations but visual traces were less concentrated, which intimates that, unlike TV homepages, there was no central area of importance and a free-form information search was less efficient.

Scan Path Variation

Scan path variance can be used to, among other things, address whether a userís eye movement remains consistent on different news sites. Additionally, it provides an indication of whether the eye movements of different users are similar across sites. There was no difference in the within-user variance indicating that an individualís scan paths did not vary significantly across the six news homepages. However, the across-user scan path variation was greater on newspaper homepages. This finding suggests that the design layouts of newspaper and TV-oriented homepages influenced eye movements differently. Scan paths on newspaper homepages had more variability than those on TV-oriented homepages. The finding is consistent with the visual traces (see Figures 2 through 7) that depict less dense traces on newsprint homepages. It appears that as participants looked for news stories they focused in the document body and on text links. When links were concentrated in one general area, as on TV homepages, those areas capture visual attention, perhaps resulting in less scan path variability. Conversely, on the newsprint sites, designs resembled a newspaper with prominent headlines throughout the page, possibly making link groupings less salient and resulting in across-user variability.

The Utility of String-editing and OMA

We used string-editing and OMA as means to identify where participants fixated on the homepages and to observe scan paths variations within and across users. As noted by Josephson and Holmes (2002) these methods afforded ways of identifying, assessing, and categorizing scan path sequences. They were especially appropriate because, like other research (e.g., Josephson & Holmes, 2002; Pieters, Rosbergen, & Wedel, 1999) the goal of this project was to understand where users directed their visual attention and how often rather than specifying exact eye fixations. In the study, the utility of the string-edit and OMA methods depended on defining layout regions of the display. In this case, the Websites had analogous layouts overall and information appoQArtioned to specific regions was similar across sites. Had there been greater variability in layouts and associated content, the definition of regions would have been more difficult. Nevertheless, we feel that string-editing and OMA are value approaches that can provide practitioners and researchers insight about usersí visual attention.

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