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Can research mislead designers?

n a recent article, website usability guru Jakob Nielsen uses research and the traditional scientific method to explain — once and for all — why marketers and designers should stop putting ‘fluffy pictures in web pages in order to to jazz up the page.’ In his study, he shows us how people’s eyes actually look at content on pages using eye tracking tools. It’s quite scientific, and it proves quite convincingly that people skip by those traditional “business setting” photos that exist all throughout corporate websites.

Yet, as is with any research or scientific endeavor, there is bias in what is being researched as well as what is being measured.

Science and research is always under the influence of experiment bias: what we choose to measure presumes the primary context and focus of work and thought. And that can create blind spots. And I spy a blind spot in Nielsen’s conclusions around his research. This blind spot is actually illustrated in the Yale Management School screen shot on his report… where he shows how people’s eyes never looked at the stock image on the right.

This certainly could be seen as a waste of space, as this space could have been utilized by some type of meaningful content (perhaps, even, an information request form). But, I would actually argue that this “wasted space” is not wasted at all. It’s merely a design element – it’s not there to attract any eyeballs, but rather there to provide the right formatting for the content Yale wants the user to focus on (i.e., the content to the left of the image). It’s quite possible that without that image, the content area would be too wide and would ultimately reduce the impact of the content. In fact, adding a valuable element (like a request form) may also serve to distract from the primary purpose of the page. In this regard, I think the design is quite effective, as eyeballs certainly went to where Yale wanted them to go.

Sometimes, elements that are not important by themselves can still provide value by simply lending importance to other elements.

Like, say, Ed McMahon.

But that does not mean we should just throw meaningless imagery into pages and useless elements into a design schema. Rather, we should understand how people want to interact with our designs, and optimize appropriately. In this particular example, we should also remain aware that “white space” can seemingly also be enabled by meaningless filler photos as Nielsen’s test seems to prove out. As always, there’s a dynamic — and at times delicate balance — at play between different elements in within an experience. Page designers will succeed when they identify the purpose of the page, and develop and design elements of varying importance to support this purpose.

Research can certainly help us understand what is happening, and it can give us new information to utilize and integrate into our design thinking. But research results should not directly drive design decisions, as Nielsen’s editorial seems to suggest.

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