6 Email Tips Based on Eye Tracking

September 19th, 2011 by Anthony Schneider

Heatmap EmailEye-tracking measures where users look on a screen — what parts of an email they read first, what parts they scan and ignore. These big, clunky machines use fancy software to track the point of the gaze and the motion of the eye, giving us a pretty detailed heatmap image of where and when people look while reading an email.

Based on eye-tracking we know that most people scan more than they read. Users don’t spend a lot of time reading emails, even email newsletters (average time: around 51 seconds). And most of us skim or only read part of an email  (35% of your subscribers skim your email, on average).

What should we do about it?

1. Keep it Short
Keep the most important points of the message near the top. Short paragraphs encourage reading. No surprise here. Even in print this is true. Big blocks of type look imposing and difficult, and your readers’ eyes will glaze over.

2. Use Headlines
Headlines draw eyes before pictures and before the small font text. So, use those headlines to get attention and to intrigue your audience so they keep reading.

3. Align to the Left
As the heatmap image above illustrates, the right-hand elements get scant attention. That’s because readers of left-to-right languages (like English) are accustomed to scanning from the top-left first. Keep this in mind when designing multi-column layouts. Moreover, email recipients tend to scan down the left side of an email, looking at the first headlines or a few words to find something they’re interested in. So make sure there’s something of interest in that initial visual sweep.

4. Focus the Message
The top left area of the body of an email is the “gold coast.” Load it up with your most appealing and important headline and graphic. The call-to-action can go further down on the left side of the body or top right. Try to avoid putting vital information or CTA on the lower right or anywhere below the fold. Don’t try to include everything in one email. Focus the intention, content and call-to-action.

5. Make it Scan-Friendly
People don’t read (or look) in a smooth, panning movement, like a movie camera in an establishing shot. Our eyes jump around. (Word of the day: these rapid eye movements from one area to the next are called saccades.) So, prepare for that zig-zag mode of reading and scanning. Limit body copy to easily-readable paragraphs, preferably under 60 characters in width. Use small, selective images to reinforce your message (picture, thousand words, remember).

6. Looking is Not the Same as Understanding
Eye tracking can help you work out where users will look, but not what information they want to receive or what they understand. Don’t put the digital cart before the horse. Make sure you have researched not only your products and services, but your audience preferences. You can’t get all this information from heatmap tracking alone, of course. Tracking helps, surveys help; focus groups and talking to customers can also help.

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Is your email eye-tracking optimized? Ask us.