We don't scan a webpage. Instead, we scan a particular block or section of it.I was working with a company who, based on research, had discovered a top intranet task. It was interesting that the web team initially had no idea what this task was about, even though there was huge demand for it in the workforce. But this is not uncommon; web teams tend to be very isolated from their customers.
But the really interesting thing was what happened when we tried to prioritize the task on the homepage. We placed the task prominently in the center column. We then did a round of testing expecting employees to immediately identify the task.
Of the 15 people that were asked to carry out the task, only one noticed it in the center column. The rest either scanned the left column or went to the search box. This was a bit of a shock but on reflection was no real surprise.
Over the years, I have found that people don't really scan an entire webpage. Rather, they break the page up into various sections or blocks and then scan within these areas.
The left column is where people expect to find the core navigation for the area they are searching for. So, for example, if they are searching for a product, and they are on the products homepage, they expect to find the main products listed in the left column.
If the company has a large range of products, then it may be that the products are listed across the page. In this situation, the traditional left and center columns should merge. The list of products should be clearly visible as a single block.
The center column is a very important space, but as we see from my initial example, if someone expects to find something in the left column, they may literally not "see" it in the center. The right column tends to be particularly weak in this respect. I have found that many people don't scan that block at all, unless perhaps as a last resort.
What is important here is to understand the expectations of your customers. Where do they expect to find things on the page? The only way to truly answer this question is through testing. However, there are general guidelines:
* Place the local navigation in the left column
* Put the logo in the top left
* In the navigation that runs across the top of the page (global navigation) place a link to Home as the first link, and also include a Contact link.
* If you are dealing with a top task, it should be startable on the homepage, and there may be multiple links to it on the page.
None of the above guidelines are absolutes. Whatever works for your customers is what you should do. However, what is definitely true is that your customers have distinct and dominant patterns of behavior.
One company we dealt with expected that for Product XY customers would click on Link A. Out of the 30 people tested only 2 clicked on Link A. But 12 people clicked on link D. In understanding your customers the first rule always is: you are not your customer.
About the Author
Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant
, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994.