The difference between print and online design

You’d think the transition from page design for print media to page design for the web would be easy considering both are based on grids and columns. But there are still some lessons to be learned from eye-tracking studies that gauge how internet users read the sites they visit.

The analysis challenges what many of us consider standard practices in online news and applies not only to online news sites, but web publishing in general.

Contrary to popular perception, a web page’s text attracts attention before its graphics, according to the analysis. Most users visit a site looking for information rather than images and as such, the most important parts of the text should be featured prominently.

If the intent is to focus on images rather than the text, make sure the image files are relatively large. As internet speeds get faster, users are more likely to view larger images if they can clearly see details and information. If images must remain small, offer a link that displays the image in a larger size. Use one of these methods if copyright violation is a concern.

Most coders/layout designers should know by now that readers are more attracted to shorter paragraphs and that large blocks of text should be avoided. According to the site:

“Studies have shown that that your average web visitor isn’t going to take the time to study large blocks of text no matter how informative or well-written they might be.”

A good percentage of internet users have short attention spans that should be catered to to provide the best information faster. That means breaking up that 50,000-word, in-depth, special report into small paragraphs across several pages. Adding subheads and bullet points will also break up the monotony of scrolling through endless blocks of text.

Another misconception held over from newspaper days is that everything must be kept above the fold — the imaginary line at the bottom of the browser where a user must scroll to see the rest of the content. Well the fold is an unnecessary design limitation.

“The fold” goes back to the days when newsstands were still relevant and important content was kept above the fold of the newspaper to grab the attention of passersby. Unlike newspapers and magazines, web browsers have scrollbars, a magnificent and less cumbersome invention. While the best and most important content should be placed near the top of the page, most users will indeed scroll to explore more of the site.

Clicktale found in its 2006 study that 76 percent of users who encountered pages with a scrollbar scrolled somewhat (up to two to three pages) and 23 percent of users scrolled all the way to the bottom of the page. For a further examination of scrolling as it relates to news, check out this previous post.

The move from paper to the web has made great strides, even in the past few years as evidenced by documentation of the evolution of the LA Times newspaper and website. The way things are going, standards of design may change again before 2008 is over.