Web designers are keen to explain the predominance of the “letter-f” approach to the Internet. This comes from eye-tracking studies which show the way we look at web pages follows, broadly, an f-shape. We start in the top left hand corner, scan across and down with a quick glance across the middle.
The perceived wisdom is that we are checking for things like navigation, headlines and signs of trustworthiness. All of that is true, but the concentration on getting your website into an F-shape for usability purposes could be working against you. That’s because new research shows that it is not what we see in our central vision that is important. Psychologists from Kansas State University have revealed that our peripheral vision plays a much greater role than previously thought.
The research showed that if you delete the information from our central vision, we can still work out what we are looking at very quickly. It seems that our peripheral vision is playing a much greater role in helping us assess the overall scene we are looking at, while our central vision merely helps us concentrate our visual input into the area we are interested in getting more detail about.
Prior to this study, our peripheral vision was thought to be just that – on the boundary, not of central importance. But this new research suggests it is actually fundamental. For website design this new research has major implications. It means that all those eye-tracking studies and usability tests are pushing us in the wrong direction.
True, they demonstrate where we focus our attention. True they tell us where we visit on a page. True they help people improve their web pages. But by concentrating our minds on the F-shape or on visitor page pathways it means our design decisions fail to sufficiently take into account the periphery of the page. It is this peripheral area which is vital in helping people determine what kind of website they are on.
So, for instance, if your are a “newsy” kind of website, merely presenting your news in the letter F shape won’t help people realise, using their peripheral vision, that you are a news-based site. Your peripheral parts of the web design need to send the message “this is a news page”. Equally, if you are a site that is meant to be information based and independent, a raft of adverts in the peripheral parts of the page suggests “we want your money”, which may not be the message you wish to convey.
In other words, this new research suggests that the parts of your website that don’t get looked at are potentially as important – perhaps even more important – than the areas that do get the greatest attention. The f-shape heatmap may well help you determine some aspects of your design and improve your usability, but this new study should act as a reminder that you should not neglect the other parts of your web page. They could prove to be much more important in user engagement.