Web designers spend a great deal of time making sure that your website visitors pay attention to what you really want them to see. There are all kinds of design tricks that make people look in a particular direction. Plus, you can use pop-ups or sliders to grab attention and take the visitor’s focus away from what they are looking at so they concentrate on what you want them to see.
Eye-tracking studies also show us what parts of a web page get the most attention. Designers and developers use results from eye-tracking research to fine-tune designs so that website owners can be sure of the maximum impact of their pages.
However, research suggests that what people do NOT see can be more important than what they are consciously looking at. One recently published study, for instance, shows that people’s brains process information from material they are specifically ignoring as their visual attention is focused elsewhere. Indeed, the material that people were NOT seeing was processed by the brain more quickly than the information they were focusing upon. In other words, it appears our brains register and process information from our peripheral vision faster than dealing with the material at which we are looking.
Other studies have found similar results. They show that we perceive things to which we are not paying attention automatically. Furthermore, our brains process such unattended items faster than dealing with the information from what we are looking at.
This is important for web design. It means that a visitor’s brain is “primed” by the material on the page at which they are NOT looking before they are consciously aware of what is on the page. Your designers might focus their attention on a particular part of the page, but the viewer’s mind has already seen, registered and processed all the other material beforehand.
The implication is that a website visitor could have their mind made up about your business before they are consciously aware of what you want them to see. For instance, let’s imagine you run advertising on your site. It is low-key, out-of-the-way, kind of advertising using something like Google Adsense. But what those adverts contain – which you can only control slightly – can impact upon your website visitors before they have seen the main element of your page. Similarly, if your website has navigational images, for example, that are not relevant to the blog post someone has landed on, then these can affect the mind of the visitor, making them less engaged with your article.
The research shows us that for every piece of content we produce, we need to be aware of what is on the rest of the page. It could influence how people engage with our web pages. What is in the peripheral vision of your website visitors has a direct impact on what the information their brain processes about your website. No longer can you just pay attention to what people focus on.
Eye-tracking studies are complex and unless you fully understand their scope and limitations you can be misdirected as to what is important on your web pages. Eye tracking heatmaps, for instance, tell you what people focus on and their journey around your web pages. That is useful information. However, do not neglect what people are not looking at. When you commission eye tracking studies, pay attention to the “cool” areas – the parts of the heatmap that show no-one really looked there. It is these parts of the page that are influencing your visitors more than you realise.