Wednesday, May 07, 2008

How Little Do Users Read?

Webpage readers read very little ...

On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.

We've known since our first studies of how users read on the Web that they typically don't read very much. Scanning text is an extremely common behavior for higher-literacy users; our recent eyetracking studies further validate this finding.

The only thing we've been missing is a mathematical formula to quantify exactly how much (or how little) people read online. Now, thanks to new data, we have this as well.
The Research Study
For full details, see the following academic paper:

Harald Weinreich, Hartmut Obendorf, Eelco Herder, and Matthias Mayer: "Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use," in the ACM Transactions on the Web, vol. 2, no. 1 (February 2008), article #5.

In the study, the authors instrumented 25 users' browsers and recorded extended information about everything they did as they went about their normal Web activities. What's important about this study is that it was completely naturalistic: the users didn't have to do anything special.

One downside of the study is that the users had above-average intelligence, with several being university employees. This might not be a problem in the long run, however. If, for example, we compare data we collected in 2008 for our Fundamental Guidelines for Web Usability seminar with a similar study we ran in 2004, we find that 2008's average behavior is close to that of 2004's higher-end users. Thus, even though Weinreich et al.'s data represents high-end users, it's likely to be fairly representative of broader user behavior in the future. In fact, the authors collected their data in 2005, so the recorded behaviors might already be fairly common.

In any case, the research yielded several interesting findings, and the full paper is well worth reading.

Among other things, the authors found that the Back button is now only the 3rd most-used feature on the Web. Clicking hypertext links remains the most-used feature, but clicking buttons (on the page) has now overtaken Back to become the second-most used feature. The reason for this change is the increased prevalence of applications and feature-rich Web pages that require users to click page buttons to access their functionality.

Of course, Back is still the user's lifeline and is so frequently used that supporting it remains a strong usability guideline.
Real-Life Reading Behavior
Harald Weinreich graciously provided me with the dataset detailing 59,573 page views.

From this data, I removed the following records:

* 10,163 page views (17%) that lasted less than 4 seconds. In such brief "visits," users clearly bounced right out without truly "using" the page.
* 2,615 page views (4%) that lasted more than 10 minutes. In these cases, users almost certainly left the browser open while doing something else.
* 1,558 page views (3%) with fewer than 20 words on them. Such pages are probably server errors or disrupted downloads.

After cleaning the dataset, I was left with 45,237 page views for my analysis."    (Continued via Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox)    [Usability Resources]


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