Eye Tracking Your Attention Span

    March 29, 2007

The attention span of Internet users has been the subject of many studies, most coming to the conclusion that, on average, people only spend a few seconds on any given site. An eye tracking study from Poynter Online, however, reveals that users who go online searching for news actually spend longer amounts of time in consuming content than their offline counterparts.

In conducting the reserch, Poynter enlisted nearly 600 regular readers in four markets, which is a pretty good sized sample. They gauged the eye patterns of readers from the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis and the Philadelphia Daily News.

The complete report of the study’s findings won’t be released until June, but Poynter has already come forward with some very interesting findings. Here is a complete overview of the online attention span study.

One of the major findings from the eye tracking study centers on amount of text read for online readers versus print readers:

People in our study selected what they wanted to read, of course, and then … they read a lot! We were amazed by these numbers.

A big surprise was that a much larger percentage of story text was read online than in print.

To look at a comparison, on average, online readers read 77 percent of what they chose to read. Broadsheet readers read an average of 62 percent. Tabloid readers read an average of 57 percent.

For a medium that’s notorious for producing users with short attention spans, it appears that the Internet is actually more conducive to reading than originally anticipated. The continuous flow of web pages may have something to do with this trend, as readers aren’t plagued by the spacing limits of traditional print publications such as newspapers and magazines.

Another theory is that online readers are, by nature, more focused on seeking out material. Your average household has a newspaper delivered daily and reading it is more an act of leisure at the end of the day, whereas surfing for news online reflects a mindset of greater intentionality.

Format also played a large factor in story retention:

The prototype portion of our study showed the value of alternative story forms as they related to comprehension and retention of information. By alternative, we mean things like a Q&A, a timeline, a short sidebar or a list.

Subjects were asked to read one of six different versions of a story about the spread of bird flu.

At the end of the test, subjects were quizzed about the story in an exit interview.

In both the print and online, subjects who answered the most questions correctly had read the version of the story with the most alternative structure — no traditional narrative.

This offers an even greater incentive for online content producers to continue developing new and innovative ways to deliver story items to readers. Print journalism is pretty much locked in to its particular delivery format, so Internet publications should continue looking for alternative methods of developing content for readers, as the Poynter study reflects increased interest and retention in that regard.