What the Poynter eyetracking study means for tablet publishers

By Dalton Barker

Poynter recently conducted a study that tracked the eye movement of people reading and navigating through three tablet layouts.

This study came at the heels of another study published in the Sacramento Bee about reading newspapers on tablets versus in print. It showed that people viewing newspapers on tablets account for 7 percent of total Web page views and that 10 percent of tablet users read news on their tablets daily.

So, what does this mean? We already know the shift toward digital is coming and, in many places, is already here. Look at Thursday's headline about Newsweek. Instead, the question becomes, How do online publishers maximize the tablet experience? Poynter's study shows online news can be tailored to individual users, but making sure that happens is one of publishers' biggest tasks.

Using eye-tracking gear, observation and exit interviews, Poynter determined precisely how people chose and viewed stories. The study found that touching behavior is critical: 61 percent of participants used the "intimate" scroll technique: quick, subtle swipes that resemble moving through a teleprompter.

The prevalence of this motion could explain why USA Today's recent redesign was largely focused on optimizing the site for tablets.

The second portion of the test gave readers three layouts: traditional, carousel and flipboard. Each style featured news stories divided into news, sports, business and life. Fifty percent of users preferred the carousel, 35 percent chose the traditional format and the remaining users chose the flipboard. Researchers also learned people often selected stories because of a dominant element such as a photograph or image. This indicates Web producers should never forget the importance of pairing stories with eye-grabbing visuals.

As journalism continues its uphill climb to attract online users, this new data could be pivotal in securing more readers and advertisers. One challenge, though, will stand out: Turning data and observations into tangible formats that make the news better.

Photos courtesy of Flickr user

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