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How People Read Online: Lessons Learned From Eye-Tracking and Usability Testing

Mobile phone scanning man's faceWe sponsored an internet talk show featuring Kate Moran, senior UX specialist at Nielsen Norman Group (NNG), a world-renowned UX research focused consultancy. During the 45-minute interview with Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler, Moran helped the audience of over 500 information developers and technical communication professionals understand what usability researchers have learned over the years about how consumers read online.

If you were unable to attend the event (broadcast live on September 16, 2020), this article serves as a summary of what you missed. We also provide a link that you can use to watch a recording of the interview on demand.

Discovering How People Read Online

To discover how people read online, researchers at NNG rely [primarily] on two scientific approaches — evaluating analytics data and conducting usability testing. To determine what people read online, NNG uses eye-tracking technologies to monitor where the eye travels when consumers encounter content. Eye-tracking is one of the most valuable — and scientific ways to study how people read.

“It all works using cameras,” says Moran. “The system reflects light into the eyes of the person we’re studying, and the cameras track how that light bounces back.”

“Eye-tracking systems are remarkably accurate,” she says. “They’re precise” in being able to answer the question, “What is this person looking at?”

Recommended: Why Users Dodge Ads on Mobile and Desktop

See also: [Video] Analytics vs. Quantitative Usability Testing

Eye-tracking systems are not limited to determining whether people are reading what you’ve written. They can also help determine whether website visitors are noticing your calls to action or discovering which content grabs their attention. Eye-tracking allows us to see what parts of our content consumers look at — not what parts we think or believe they do.

Usability testing and eye-tracking are tools we can use to measure the impact of the content we publish. While these methods are labor-intensive, the results are “worth the effort,” Moran says, because they let us witness realistic human behavior.

“What I love about eye-tracking research is that it’s all about seeing where readers direct their attention and determining what signals are influencing their behavior,” she adds.

Recommended: [Video] Principles of Human-Centered Design with Don Norman

Preparing To Conduct Eye-Tracking Usability Tests

Woman reading news on tablet

Setting up and implementing a usability testing program involves attention to detail. We have to calibrate equipment for each person we intend to study because humans have different eye and face shapes.

“But once you do that, it’s possible to measure accurately what consumers are looking at and whether they are reading our prose word-for-word or not,” Moran says.

Once eye-tracking equipment has been configured and calibrated, it’s time to get down to work. The labor involved in usability testing with eye-tracking systems is not trivial. “We may need to walk each subject we intend to observe through about an hour and a half of testing,” says Moran.

The quantitative work of determining what people read online also requires significant time watching (and rewatching) video recordings of each test subject’s usability testing and eye-tracking sessions.

Recommended: [Video] Running a Remote Usability Test

See also: [Video] Qualitative vs. Quantitative UX Research

It’s A Fact: Just Because You Wrote It Doesn’t Mean They’ll Read It

No writer wants to hear this: The consumers we’re hoping to dazzle with our grammatical prowess and linguistic gymnastics do not read what we have written.

Consumers are an impatient lot. On average, the amount of time people spend on a web page only allows them to read about 20% of the words on the page, according to research from Jakob Nielsen.

“If we’re putting out 88,000 words on a topic, attempting to explain every little piece of data that might be useful to somebody, we may be doing them a disservice,” Moran notes.

Related: [Video] Choice Overload Impedes User Decision-Making

See also: [Video] Why Chunking Content is Important

When Moran shows eye-tracking videos to information developers for the first time, she says they’re often “surprised” to see the actual behavior of those they are hoping to engage with their content.

“They say things like, ‘Wow, she’s not reading linearly, right? She’s not reading word-for-word. She’s not reading the words in the order we’re presenting them,'” Moran adds.

While it’s shocking for some content creators to realize, it’s common for online readers to skim past some content but read other bits. Just because we wrote it does not mean they’ll read it.

“One of the most important things that we’ve learned from eye-tracking research is how little people are reading, she says. The fact is, online consumers miss or skip over much of the content we intend them to consume.”

Sometimes, Moran says, they read a piece of content and return seconds later to reread it. “We call that backtracking, she says. “It can act as a sign that the reader doesn’t comprehend our content; they didn’t fully understand it, and they feel compelled to reread it.”

Putting Usability Testing and Eye-Tracking to Work

Usability testing and eye-tracking data can improve the way we produce content and serve our customers’ needs. When we discover something is amiss — content is not performing as we desire — it can be challenging to accept. Moran says once we determine that we’re not getting the expected results, “it’s an opportunity to make adjustments to our approach.”

Moran warns us to be cautious and to avoid focusing solely on designing for delight. While delight may seem to be a positive goal, it can also be “really, really distracting,” Moran says.

Moran offers up this advice—focus on making improvements that impact content performance.

Recommended: [Video] Turning Analytics Data Into Usability Studies

See also: [Video] User Testing: Why & How with Jakob Nielsen

To learn more about how to make research-based decisions about our content, watch a recording of the interview with Moran on demand.

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