Laura Ruel: “News consumption has become a social networking experience”

Laura Ruel is an assistant professor in visual communication and multimedia production in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research interests include examining user behavior and cognitive processes in the age of multimedia journalism. The goal of this research area is to find practical applications for multimedia news design. This week Laura has taken a plane from United States to give us some insight about her research with eyetracking technology.

The Eyetrack III research released in 2004 remains as one of the most thorough studies about website design and it has proven to be very useful for the news industry. Six years seems an eternity in Internet why we still haven’t seen an Eyetrack IV research?

Yes, six years IS an long time in “Internet time.” However, there HAVE been a number of studies done by me and others since Eyetrack III. I will discuss the results of these when I am in Spain. For example the Poynter Institute did a study Eyetrack 2007 and I co-authored an article about the key findings.

Laura Ruel

Laura Ruel


I also have written about research done by Jakob Nielsen.

Even more recently, I have done research with my DiSEL research consortium. It is a group comprised of myself, Nora Paul (from the University of Minnesota) and eleven major media companies in the U.S (including Yahoo! News, the NewYorkTimes.com and USAToday.com). You can find an overview of our work (as well as links to recent articles) here:

In addition, a year ago I completed a major study with OMD media group in Santiago, Chile and the Universidad de los Andes. We studied news and retail Web sites in Chile as well as product placements in video ads and TV shows. We still are reviewing results from this work and I plan to bring some of the more recent observations with me.

So, things have not been standing still since 2004. It is true that some of the lessons learned in 2004 have stood the test of time.   Still other observations bring us new insight. I am eager to share these findings with all of you.

Eyetrack III was focused on news websites. At that moment they were attracting the attention of internet users. Now it seems that our eyes spend more time exploring social networks. Do you know about any research on that kind of websites?

Yes, a study I plan to do this summer will explore user behavior on social networking sites. It is an important issue. A Pew study just released shows that “news” is a “social networking experience.” The study says that 37% of U.S. Internet users have contributed to the creation of news, commented about it, or disseminated it via postings on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter.

Some study has started in this area and I will reported some of the results that will inform my work this summer. The Catalyst Group has done some interesting eyetracking work evaluating layouts of “friends lists” on social networking sites:

Another “starter” study on this topic was written about here;

We will discuss some eyetracking that has been done in this area during my visit to Barcelona. I also will be eager to discuss my future research plans and get ideas/predictions from the students.

In a not-too-distant future cell phones are going to be an important way to browse the Internet Is the eyetracking technology accurate enough for giving useful feedbacks?

Tobii (the company that makes the eyetracking devices I have used) has found a way to develop decent technology setups to track user eye movements on mobile devices.

Although not as “natural” a situation as the desktop computer screen eyetracking of a Web site, white paper by Tobii (released last week) has shown great strides in this technology.

Part of our discussions this weekend will to discuss testing situations and the implications on study results. All should be aware of the trade-offs and choices we make as researchers when trying to glean information from user experiences.

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