martedì 4 dicembre 2007



Navigation Placement on News Homepages
The majority of news websites carry navigation -- links to other major sections of the site -- in the left columns of their homepages. Second most common is the top navigation bar, tucked under the site's nameplate and above page content. Some even carry left AND top navigation, like Others use 3-way wrap-around navigation -- that is, navigation elements are repeated at top, left, and right -- like

This report is one of many from the Eyetrack III study of broadband-era news websites.

46 people were tested for one hour each in December 2003 by Eyetools Inc. in partnership with the Poynter Institute and the Estlow Center. During the test period, each test subject viewed mock news websites created for research purposes and real-world multimedia news features. Results were published in September 2004.

In part of our Eyetrack III testing of news website user behavior, we had test participants view five sets of homepage designs created by Nik Wilets, chief information architect for Morris Digital Works. (There were 10 homepages total, with each set of two being identical except for one variable that differed.) Among those sets, the designs used variable navigation placement. Looking across the eye movements tracked on all those pages, researchers were able to discern some patterns relating to navigation placement. Because the navigation elements were not tightly controlled variables in this particular part of our testing, we present below some observations about navigation placement on news websites (not definitive findings).

Click on the thumbnails below to bring up images of the homepage designs.

Left navigation:
Homepage No. 1 Homepage No. 6

Homepage No. 5 Homepage No. 10

Top navigation:
Homepage No. 2 Homepage No. 7
Homepage No. 4 Homepage No. 9

Right navigation:
Homepage No. 3 Homepage No. 8

Observation: On homepages, top navigation captures more views than left or right navigation.

A common finding throughout this eyetracking research is that items placed in close proximity to major headlines are viewed more because of "visual bleed." An item close to a prominent headline will receive more direct views (or "fixations") than an item that is separated by white space or a visual barrier like a rule (or line).

We observed the same pattern with top navigation, which is closest of all the navigation placements to a homepage's top headlines and also received the most views of the three navigation placements.

As you can see in the heatmap images below, a greater percentage of people looked at the top navigation element than looked at left or right navigation. (A heatmap is an aggregate image showing overall eye activity on a webpage. Red-orange areas indicate the most eye activity, blue-black the least.)

Heatmap - homepage No. 2 Heatmap homepage No. 7

Now, compare those pages to the one below, which has left navigation. Notice how the navigation receives considerably less viewing.

Heatmap - homepage No. 6

There is some fear among news Web designers that top navigation -- because it's typically a thin bar running horizontally across the page that doesn't occupy as much screen real estate as a typical left navigation scheme -- won't be as visible. Perhaps these eyetracking observations will help to ease those fears.

This chart shows the percentage of people who saw the navigation component of each of our homepages (that is, who looked directly at it, or in eyetracking terminology had a fixation). The top performers were the top-navigation elements on homepages No. 2 and 7, followed by the top navigation on homepage No. 4. (Take these numbers with a grain of salt; this particular part of the research did not use tightly controlled variables.)

When it comes to left and right navigation on homepages, the percent-seeing figures are very close for both. The right navigation actually has a very slight advantage. Of course, this might have been the novelty factor at play; it's unusual to find right navigation on a website, so that might have affected viewing behavior.

Observation: At the article level, left navigation is viewed most frequently.

Our test subjects also viewed a variety of article pages, with navigation placement corresponding to the homepages they saw before clicking on the article link.

What we found was that with articles, left navigation was viewed 18 percent more often by our testers than either top or right navigation placement. Our test participants viewed top and right navigation about equally.

But the right navigation received more attention time (more eye fixations) on average than either left or top -- though it was seen less. People who looked at right navigation spent more time focusing on it than navigation placed elsewhere. (That could have been because of the novelty of seeing navigation on the right side of the page.)

Top navigation performed better than left in terms of number of average fixations -- mirroring top-placement's better performance on homepages.

Remember, page design varied along with navigation placement; this particular part of the Eyetrack III testing didn't use tightly controlled variables. So use these observations with caution; the figures cited above would not hold up to statistical analysis.

Observation: People didn't spend much time looking at navigation on our homepages.

On average, our participants spent 1.2 seconds looking at the homepage navigation element, out of a total average of 14.5 seconds spent viewing a homepage. This was fairly consistent between the various homepage designs, with the navigation element receiving only a second or two of most test subjects' eye time. The only exception was on a compact homepage, which is discussed in the item below this.

Observation: Navigation gets used most on compact homepages.

Navigation is critical to compact pages and less critical for extended pages with lots of content. Forty percent of participants clicked on the navigation bar when viewing homepage No. 2, which was a compact-design page with only five headline links and did not require scrolling to see the entire page. This was far more than any other page. The least-clicked navigation was on homepage No. 7 (which was the same design as No. 2, but with 17 headlines). On that homepage, only 7 percent of participants clicked on the navigation.

When we look at all the clicks on a page, we find that on homepage No. 2 (compact), nearly 30 percent of the clicks were on the navigation. No other page came anywhere close to that; the average for all other pages was 8 percent of all clicks going to navigation elements. The least-clicked navigation was on homepage No. 7 -- the expanded version of the No. 2 page design.

This suggests that homepages with lots of content and options for clicking on articles may see modest usage of navigation elements, but rather can expect users to click on article links as navigation inside the site. The majority of news websites in the real world -- at this writing -- have expanded homepages with lots of content. We might expect, then, that navigation on such pages isn't directing many people to inside sections; instead, homepage content is.


Here are some tips based on what we observed on navigation in this part of the research:

  • Do not take this report to indicate that top navigation placement is THE way to go for homepages. Rather, take it to mean that there's probably no reason based on these observations to avoid it. The advantage to top placement, of course, is that it can be compact, opening up a left column for editorial and/or advertising content.
  • As for left and right navigation, it appears that right placement -- which is unusual among news websites -- is a viable option. The performance of right-nav placement was very similar to left.
  • The navigation strategy you employ depends, in part, on how you view your page. Does your homepage provide a brief summary of headlines (in which case our observations suggest users rely on navigation more) or a comprehensive extended table of contents to the materials inside (in which case our observations suggest users rely on navigation less)? For a compact homepage -- especially one that fits entirely on a single screen -- the navigation is more heavily used by readers. If you have an expanded homepage, be aware that the navigation may not be viewed or used much, since readers are clicking on links to browse through the site. So, if you want users to go to your business section, for example, be sure there are business article links and/or blurbs on your homepage.