Monday, August 20, 2007

Banner Blindness: Old and New Findings

Which advertising displays pay off ...

"Users rarely look at display advertisements on websites. Of the four design elements that do attract a few ad fixations, one is unethical and reduces the value of advertising networks.

I've been reluctant to discuss one of the findings from our eyetracking research because the conclusion is that unethical design pays off.

In 1997, I chose to suppress a similar finding: users tend to click on banner ads that look like dialog boxes, complete with fake OK and Cancel buttons. Of course, instead of being an actual system message -- such as "Your Internet Connection Is Not Optimized" -- the banner is just a picture of a dialog box, and clicking its close box doesn't dismiss it, but rather takes users to the advertiser's site. Deceptive, unethical, and #3 among the most-hated advertising techniques. Still, fake dialog boxes got many more clicks than regular banners, which users had already started to ignore in 1997.

Can't Hide Usability Findings
After much soul-searching, I've now decided to take a different approach and publish our new findings, despite their ethical implications. In reality, it's not possible to suppress research results because anybody who bothers to run the study will get the same findings. There are no secrets of usability any more than there are secrets of astronomy. If you point your telescope at Saturn, you will see that it has rings. And, if you conduct a series of usability studies, you will discover the same insights as we do -- assuming you employ the correct methodology.

Many people without a grounding in behavioral user-research principles use bogus methodology and thus get misleading findings. Poor methodology is especially common for eyetracking studies, and thus most published studies in this area are wrong.

For example, unskilled researchers often ask users to simply look at a page, rather than have them encounter it as part of a task flow. Users naturally look at things differently depending on the context. For example, if you want to know how users look at the elements of a form, you can't just present the form on a stand-alone page and ask them to fill it out. Instead, you have to present the form in the context of a meaningful task that they might attempt in the real world. That is, users should encounter the form in response to particular actions, such as deciding to check out from an e-commerce site.

Still, even though most eyetracking studies are misleading, some studies do produce valid results. Trying to keep any results a secret is thus a lost cause.

Most of our eyetracking findings on Web advertising present no ethical dilemmas. For example, we know that there are 3 design elements that are most effective at attracting eyeballs:

* Plain text
* Faces
* Cleavage and other "private" body parts

I don't have a problem presenting details of these findings in the seminar on Fundamental Guidelines for Web Usability; it's important that all Web designers know where users look on pages."    (Continued via Alertbox)    [Usability Resources]

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