Research Pages Review or ‘Professors Don’t Read’

Summer’s over and I’m back at my desk – there’s a lot of cool stuff coming up in the Autumn, not least the results of an expert review and usability test I’ve commissioned a consultancy to do of the english web pages. I’m looking forward to it with constructive apprehension – watch this space…

I’ve recently completed a review of the research pages of the university – principally just to find out how many we have…We’ve got at least 2500 pages which directly describe research and there’s probably another 5 000 to 10 000 describing, among other things, researchers, equipment, services etc etc. This review will be used to focus further development work.

One issue I saw immediately, in some cases, is the sheer volume of text. Many pages had at least 300 plus words – which is a problem. Why? Here’s some facts:

- Gerry McGovern, in his book Killer Web Content, says that after the first 300 words you’ve lost 40% of the readers.

or, if you want something a bit more empirical (and we are talking about research, after all)

- Based on the work of Weinreich et al. (2008) Jakob Nielsen showed that most visitors to a web page will look at only 28% of the text (on a page with 300 words, users are on it for around 30 seconds)

Ah wait, but the research pages will be read by Professors and such, who have much more patience than the rest of us time starved hunter gatherers of the web. Sorry:

- A study by the British Library (2008) showed that both undergraduates, and professors, exhibited the same tendency for shallow, ‘flicking’ behaviour in digital libraries. Yep, just like the rest of us, professors don’t read.

So too many words, and you’ve lost the reader. Which is a problem if the most exciting stuff is in your last sentence. And this is now 341 words, which means, according to Gerry, that only about 40% of you ever got this far.

Report confirms scanning behaviour by readers – back button use also declining

A paper published in ACM Transactions on the web in February 2008 takes a detailed, and scientific look, at peoples behaviour on websites.

Backtracking through a site is no longer so popular, back button usage has been replaced by multiple tabs. Scanning text, rather than reading it, remains the norm. These are the results of work published by researchers who examined peoples behavior in a long term study and compared it with similar studies from the mid ‘90s.

Here’s the reference:

Weinreich, H., Obendorf, H., Mayer, M. (2008). Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use. ACM Transactions on the Web. Vol.2. No. 1.

Their results can be divided into:

The new character of web navigation:

The most significant change is the increased number of pages opened in new windows (reflecting the introduction of this feature in modern browsers), the raised importance of form submissions and a decrease in back button usage. The back button is functioning more as an ‘undo’ tool.

The speed of web navigation:

Only 10% of all visits were longer than two minutes. 75% of all pages were viewed for less than 10 seconds. 25% of all pages were viewed for less than 4 seconds. Pages visited for less than 4 seconds had an average number of 430 words – far more than can be read in that time.

Jakob Nielsen takes a more detailed look at this – How little do users read?