The Poynter Institute's latest eyetracking study focused on how people interact with news via tablets. Here's some of what they found -- as well as what this research did not cover.
Poynter is formally presenting its full findings today at a conference at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. (Watch the presentation live.)
This study observed (with eyetracking gear and exit interviews) how 36 iPad users interacted with three tablet-optimized news prototypes created for this study (rather than an actual mobile website or app from a news organization). All prototypes included the same four sections and 20 stories.
Earlier this week Sara Dickenson Quinn summarized the research highlights on Poynter.org. Here are a few key findings:
Touch is as important as seeing. "People were either intimately involved with the iPad screen while reading during our recent eyetracking study -- keeping nearly constant contact while touching, tapping, pinching and swiping to adjust their view -- or they carefully arranged a full screen of text before physically detaching as they sat back to read."
The "carousel" approach was most popular. Half of the research subjected reported a preference for the "carousel" prototype homescreen design, which rotated through images and headlines for each of the 20 stories included in the fictitious publication. Next most popular (preferred by 35%) was the "traditional" prototype, with a homescreen featuring a dominant photograph, a lead headline and headlines for all 20 stories. Only 15% preferred the "flipboard" prototype featuring only four images -- one for each category, each highlighting one story.
How much are people actually reading? "While many text stories were read to completion, an overall average of a minute and a half (98.3 seconds) was spent on the first story a person selected to read. Of the people who did not finish reading a story, they read for an average of 78.3 seconds before leaving the story entirely. We've been calling this the 'bailer's point' and it might be a good benchmark for establishing a 'gold coin' like a simple pullout quote or visual element that keeps the reader engaged about halfway through a long story."
What this research did not cover:
Poynter's study focused exclusively on the full-size Apple iPad, despite the fast-growing diversity of tablet devices on the market -- including smaller, more affordable tablets such as the Kindle Fire HD and Google's Nexus 7.
As signaled by next Tuesday's widely anticipated "iPad mini" launch from Apple (just in time for the holiday shopping season), in coming months it's likely that smaller tablets will begin to play an important role in how people access and interact with all kinds of content, including news. Given the significantly lower price point of smaller tablets, they could quickly eclipse the iPad as percentage of the digital news audience. Also, the size of a tablet is critical how people perceive and use that device, so websites and apps will need to be adapted to serve this growing audience segment.
Why, then, weren't smaller tablets included in Poynter's study? In an exchange on the Facebook Mobile Journalism group, Dave Stanton (managing developer for Smart Media Creative, which helped Poynter conduct this research), acknowledged: "Seven-inch tablets are super important." However, at the time they were planning how to execute this research, the full-size iPad "was just so overwhelmingly dominant in the market." Also: "We had a much smaller budget than the EyeTrack 2007 study, so we had to make some data-efficiency choices based on sample size."
This study also did not explore how tablet users interact with news aggregators -- a crucial part of news discovery, from the consumer's perspective. Given the huge popularity of aggregator websites such as Google News or apps such as Flipboard, it probably would be useful if future tablet news consumption research also examined how tablet users interact with aggregators, which bring users directly to story pages on new websites, rather than the homescreen of a digital news website or app.
It also would be helpful to examine how and why users follow hyperlinks included in news stories, and whether they like options to save longer stories in a more bare-bones format (á la Instapaper or BostonGlobe.com's MySaved stories) for later reading in-depth, perhaps offline.
Further research into these topics would provide a more complete context for optimizing the digital news experience in order to attract and retain more users -- which is, after all, the point of the news business. From the user's experience, any one digital news venue is never the whole news picture, on any device.