When will users look on the right side of a web page?

December 4, 2010

Regular watchers of usability testing sessions will be very aware that users rarely appear to look on the right hand side of the page. Often sites will put information that is key to a user journey on the right of the page that gets missed. On a site we tested recently what was, in effect, the main navigation was on the right hand side of the page and users struggled to find it.

However, there are times when users seem to easily find information that is located on the right of the page. This set me thinking about when this part of the page can be used with confidence that users will notice what is there.

Various authors have reported that users look at pages in an F shaped manner. Our own observations confirm that generally this is the case on Home pages (though not always) but that this is not normally the case on navigation pages (pages that lead a user to the next level in site hierarchy) or on content pages. What we observe is that, on these pages, users look first in the top centre – but below any banner or navigation – this is where they expect to find relevant content, or links that will lead them to content.

If they can’t find what they want here, they will then look around the page, initially by scrolling down and then, if this is not successful, they will look to the left for a left hand navigation, or at the top. On many occasions users will still completely miss relevant links on the right of the page.

However, if a user is on a relevant content page and has found what they want (i.e. they will have achieved their goal) they may then think of something else they want to find then they will look around in a much more systematic way and will include the right hand side of the page in this search. We recently tested a prototype wire frame for a client where links to follow-on tasks were put on the right. These were found by all users who stayed on the content page to complete the task. (Over half the users in this test did this, but the remainder clicked the back button to start the follow-on task from a higher level in the information architecture).

The key conclusion seems to be that whether the user will look at the right of the page depends where the user is in their journey. On route to a goal, users look mainly in the centre of the page, but having completed a goal they will happily look on the right for related information. This clearly has implications for the type of content that can be placed on the right of a page. On content pages this space can be used for links to related content but on navigation pages it is likely to be missed.