Web Browser Tabs are Cutting User’s Online Attention Span (Usability)

by Haysam Fahmy

The web is continuously sprawling with vast amounts of content, and the time needed from users to consume what’s relevant of it is shrinking by the minute. From web to mobile (and now tablets, ie..IPad), the digital attention span is at an all time low.

Switching between devices and platforms is becoming a bit overwhelming in helping users get the content they need. However, there is a bigger headache brought about by the basic foundation that paved the way for all of today’s innovative online offerings: Web Browsing.

Web browsing habits today are significantly affecting how users absorb and internalize online content, mainly because their declining digital attention span is forcing them to open multiple browser tabs.

Studies are now showing that since browsers have started supporting tabbed browsing, users have paid less and less attention to the content being offered on web pages.

Early this year, Jeff Huang, an information scientist at the University of Washington, studied the behavior of 50 millions web surfers and habits regarding tabbed browsing(on 60 billion pages). Here are some of his interesting findings:

•         Tabbed browsing occurs 85% during browsing time

•         Users switch tabs at least 57.4% of the browsing time, meaning parallel browsing is more common than linear browsing

•         Most web surfers do not create tabs (branch out) from search engine result pages, but more from non-navigational queries

•         Using multiple windows and tabs was a key strategy in engaging elsewhere while one page was loading

•         5-10 page views per tab are common, meaning users often visit a handful of pages in each tab.

•         Tabs do not result in users viewing more pages; it simply leads to multitasking

•         In activities engaged online, web search is a close second in popularity behind email

•         Below are “interesting” search queries that most and least result in tabbing (branching)

His research findings are great because they allow digital media agencies to ask the following web usability questions:

How are tabs being used?

•          Act as reminders

•          Allow people to multitask

•          Useful for comparison

•          Act as bookmarks

•          Used significantly instead of the back button.

What could this affect?

•          Time spent on a page/site

•          Activity carried out on the website

•          Visitor Intent and relevant course of action

What does this mean for Web Designers/Developers?

1.      Try to get your content across to the user in the least amount of time…make it as straight forward as possible

2.      Design pages easy enough for a 8 year old to understand

3.      Don’t expect users to stay on your site/page longer than 10 seconds. Expect the users intention to be: “Get the info I need in the shortest possible time” (check site web analytics for trends/habits)

4.      Include simple courses of action for the user to take within the page (ie..click here to..)

5.      Easy to access navigational features on every page are essential

What does this mean for Digital Creatives?

1.      If the fusion of beauty, brand, and style do not support the page’s content, users will probably leave the site

2.      Users will hardly ever give your page their full undivided attention

3.      Think of your page as a “reminder” for the user to access later, so dont put all your brilliant creative work in just the first few seconds of an animated page.

4.      If the creative images and animations are big…meaning heavy to load, good chance users will switch tabs and forget your page


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