I found this article by Andy Rutledge to be very interesting. He believes Poynter is doing the public a disservice by putting out studies on the eye movement of people who read things on the web or in print (the study is here). Now, I’ve always found information about the typical eye movement of people to be interesting, but nothing more. In high school, I learned people view a website in a Z pattern, starting in the top left and ending in the bottom right. I used this rule of thumb to design many websites that ended up all looking alike and were really boring. But since I’ve been in college, I’ve thrown the silly “eye-movment” rules out the window. It has never informed me on how to design something. Why? Because the designer can control the reader’s eye with design principles and elements.

I find it interesting that a school for journalists is studying eye movement of web and print readers. Designers have total control over the movement of the eye with the design principles they employ, so studying eye movement should be done case by case and not by journalists. This is like a school of graphic designers putting a study on how to write for newspapers or for the web. It just shouldn’t be done

Poynter has consistantly put out studies on the the eye-movement of readers, giving specific conclusions about their data. How useful are their conclusions? Andy Rutledge would say they aren’t very useful at all because an eye-tracking test can’t be applied to every publication or website. The reader who they tested on a certain newspaper might have been interested in the article, therefore read more of it. That doesn’t mean everything about that design is great and should be applied to every other aspect of publication design.

My communication friends might not like this quote, but I think, in this case, it is true. Poynter has done a study on something outside the realm of their profession. They are measuring something the designer has the ability to control: eye movement.

They’re making these mistakes, I believe, largely because they’re clearly not designers! The Poynter Institute is “a school for journalists, future journalists and teachers of journalists.” That’s great, but it clearly does not stand them in good stead when they so casually and unwittingly wander into the realm of design.

If you haven’t began to hate me, maybe this next excerpt from Andy Rutledge’s post will make you do so. 🙂

Eye-tracking Myopia

Here are a couple of examples of Poynter’s EyeTrack conclusions. Let’s examine some of their claims from the studies about online readers’ habits.

1. Users spend a good deal of time initially looking at the top left of the page and upper portion of the page before moving down and right-ward.

Not if the designer doesn’t want that to happen. What they’re referring to here are the behaviors of their study subjects when presented with the specific layouts used in the study. Any competent designer can craft a layout and design to elicit any specific entry/focus behavior on the page.

2. Ads perform better in the left hand column over the right column of a page. The right column is treated by users as an “after-thought” area and should be designed with that in mind.

Hogwash. Yes, a designer can make this so, but she can also design the page so that any area of the page allows ads to perform better. This is, in fact, the designer’s responsibility with many projects. The “after thought area” of a page is created by the design—if it is designed to exist at all, and is not always relegated to the right column.

3. Navigation placed at the top of a homepage performed best.

…For the specific designs used in the study, perhaps. But this again is wholly contextual to the design, the content, and the intent of the designer.

This is the sort of pap they would have designers, publishers, and editors believe and invest in. In their current pre-study promo article, they say, “Because the study adheres to the highest research standards, we’ll be able to offer industry leaders scientific accuracy on which to base the editing decisions they make every day.” However, as their conclusions are farcical and myopic, they don’t actually offer much in the way of valuable information. Their definitions of high research standards and scientific accuracy would seem to be unreliable.

So let’s let journalists write and study the effects of writing on readers. Also, let’s let designers design and study of the effects of design on viewers.

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