Delegates at last weekend's fifth annual Online Journalism Symposium at the University of Texas were treated to a preview of a new study into how news sites are read.

Steve Outing, senior editor at the Poynter Institute, outlined some early observations from the Eyetrack III study that will be an important tool to help publishers design their news sites.

Research was carried out in autumn 2003 by a team from the Poynter Institute, the Estlow Centre for Journalism and New Media and Eyetools Inc. Fifty volunteers read news websites and multimedia news content for one hour while sophisticated eyetracking equipment monitored the movement of their eyes around the web pages.

"We created 10 mock web sites with five designs similar to those used by most news sites," said Mr Outing.

"We then created two versions for each design with slight variables - one with headlines and one with headlines and decks, for example - and then measured the differences."

Some data from the study will be presented as 'heatmaps'. These compile the reading patterns from all 50 volunteers and show the results in colour form with clouds of 'hot colours' over the areas of most activity.

The study also compares the responses of web users reading multimedia editorial content with standard text.

The first Eyetrack study was conducted in 1990 when print newspapers were beginning to introduce colour. Eyetrack II, in 1999, was the first study to explore reading patterns on online news sites.

The full results of Eyetrack III will be released in late May and will be available free of charge on the Poynter website.

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