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Horizontal Attention Leans Left

In previous research on horizontal attention, we found that, on the web, people disproportionately spend much more viewing time on the left half of the page versus on the right half. Since that article was published in 2010, the web has undergone significant changes, yet this finding holds true.

In our most recent round of eyetracking research, we gathered data from more than 120 participants completing open-ended, web-related tasks. To determine where people direct their eyes most frequently, we looked at the X & Y coordinates from over 130,000 eye fixations and counted how many of these fell in the different areas of the screen.

In our initial study, we used a 1024×768 monitor. For this round, we used a 1920×1080 monitor, which stretched viewing patterns toward the right.

General-Web Viewing Patterns

For the first part of our analysis, we excluded search-engine results pages and looked only at what we call the “general web” (i.e., mainstream websites, such as ecommerce, news, company sites, and government sites). For these pages, we found that, if we were to slice a maximized page down the middle, 80% of the fixations fell on the left half of the screen (even more than our previous finding of 69%). The remaining 20% of fixations were on the right half of the screen.

None of the users we observed used horizontal scrolling (that is, there were no fixations to the right of the screen edge), but many of the rightmost fixations can be attributed to searching for the (vertical) scrollbar.The absence of fixations on content to the right of the screen’s edge is in contrast to our research from 2010 where 1% of fixations were to the right of the initially viewable area on the 1024px-wide monitor. Unlike the bottom fold of the screen, which reduces but does not completely eliminate vertical scrolling, the “right-hand fold”  was transformed into a virtually impenetrable barrier by the larger screen sizes.

Horizontal Attention Leans Left
If we slice a page in half (the red dotted line), we find that most fixations fall in the left half of the page. Centered layouts and wider screens don’t imply right fixations.

In 2010, the peak of the fixation distribution was around 400 pixels from the left edge of the screen, whereas now it’s about 600 pixels from the left. Thus, a 900-pixel increase in screen width has only shifted users’ peak attention about 200 pixels to the right.

One interesting finding in our newest research is that the screen slice representing the leftmost 10% of the screen real estate, between 0 and 192 pixels, had relatively few fixations (only 6%) compared with the other regions in the left half of the screen. This result is likely due to two reasons:

  • Left navigation bars, which were fixated only occasionally compared with the rest of the screen content
  • Responsive designs with empty “page gutters,” which “centered” the content more than older website layouts did.

The first reason shows that users have become quite good at recognizing navigation and don’t have to spend time viewing it until they need it. This is positive. The second reason is more unfortunate: many current desktop layouts waste available screen real estate instead of increasing user productivity by designing for it.

Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs)

Horizontal Attention Leans Left
Fixation distribution on SERPs is skewed even more to the left than on general-web pages.

Search-engine use made up 16% of web use that we observed, and was analyzed separately to prevent the skew of data.  We found that browsing patterns on search-engine result pages (SERPs) were different from browsing patterns on the general web. On SERPs, almost all fixations (94%) fell on the left side of the page, and 60% those fixations can be isolated to the leftmost 400px. This finding could be due to the placement of search fields, and to the fact that most search engines keep search-results listings within a window of 600 to 1100px, depending on the presence of items like Google’s Knowledge panel.

Horizontal Attention Leans Left
Google’s Knowledge panel (the box on the right side of this SERP) present Google’s best attempt to provide a summary response to some queries. They can range from biographical data, music artist discographies, local business contact information, and so on.

It’s also worth noting that if we limit our analysis of search-result viewing to the 0–1100px region (the width of the SERP’s main content) as opposed to 0–1920px (the width of the whole maximized browser window) and then divide up each type of screen into 4 equal regions (of 480px for the general web and 275px for SERP pages), the SERP and the general-web patterns are very similar:  81% fixations fall in the left half of this region on SERPs vs. 80% on general-web pages.

Horizontal Attention Leans Left
SERP and general-web browsing patterns are not all that different from each other when you control for the width of content.

Conventional Layouts Still Win

While the web has evolved since our last study, page-viewing patterns haven’t. Adherence to design conventions is a surefire way to ensure that your customers can readily find your priority content:

  • Utilize conventional top navigation or left navigation formats.
  • Take advantage of residual eye fixations to place just-in-time content.
  • Priority content should be front and center, keeping in mind that the right side of the page garners a lot less attention than the left, and that the very leftmost area should be reserved for navigation.
  • Keep secondary content to the right. It won’t be seen as much here, but that’s okay — not everything can get top billing, and you need a place to put less-important material.
  • If you do use the right side for content, ensure that people actually look there by increasing visual prominence.

The next question is one of the chicken and egg — will viewing patterns evolve because of evolving web layouts? Yes and no.  Layouts and viewing patterns are codependent:

  • People will look where they’ve seen content before. As Jakob’s Law of Internet User Experience states, «Users spend most of their time on other websites.»
  • In response to this knowledge, companies will then place content where they believe people are looking.

If we all woke up tomorrow in a world where all sites place navigation on the right, users would notice and would be forced to change their viewing patterns to adapt to this new world. (Indeed, this is what we see when testing Arab websites and other sites in languages that read from right-to-left where “Western” design patterns tend to be mirrored.) But occasional changes here and there on random sites are unlikely to change user behavior.

Should you deviate from convention, understand that it is a risk which may jeopardize the effectiveness and persuasiveness of your content. Users will look for information where they expect it to be in a conventional layout. If that content isn’t there, the consequential search they will embark on will increase the amount of work and time to find information. If people decide they can find the information more quickly elsewhere, they probably will.

In short, if you wish to beat the competition, ensure that your site wins out on usability. Allow your users to be successful. Successful users accomplish their goals; and supporting user goals is the most important part of accomplishing business goals. Better usability and adhering to conventions is a time-saving and, most importantly, money-making strategy.