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Is this picture true or false?

enter image description here

My assertion is that it is true, but I would like your collective second opinion. Do you know of some research online on the subject?

My explanation is that users will skim through the middle of a list and give more eye contact to the first and last items. At Intuit, this held up under testing, but those tests are not available.

Blog post on the subject.

Of course there are a million variants of the question, so make a few assumptions that this is a normal application or webpage and not a special circumstance.

UPDATE: Even though I wrong One, Two, Three, Four, you could imagine other things there like "Home, Products, About Us and Partners". Things without a logical order.

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I've already critiqued your theory in my comments on your blog post @ commadot.com/the-ux-of-tab-priority (as have others) so I won't repeat them here, but thought I should at least mention their existence here. –  MarcusT Jun 23 '10 at 16:42
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14 Answers 14

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I can see the logic in what you're saying and this type of question is the stuff that really fascinates me... BUT Im not convinced either that the second most important tab is the last one in the list.

What if you had a list of tabs that was say 6 or 7 items long. That's a lot of screen real estate for a user's eye to jump around over, and if they see a label that stands out to them in some way they might not even get to the end of the list.

I also think the decision about placement should also be based on the visual design of the selected (active) tab and the inactive ones. If the visual difference is quite strong, the list of other tab items visually begins with the second tab in the list, and therefore could be the second most important tab.

Another trick might be to start the list of tabs with the second tab active, and put the second most important tab at the front of the tab list -- as this typically is where a (western) user would start scanning, and the slight visual imbalance may even help draw in their eye because they're seeing something unexpected.

I think you could also apply the same logic (and tests) to button bars, global navigation etc not just tabs.

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"stuff that really fascinates me... " I totally agree. I could state the obvious all day long, but its the questions that don't have a satisfying answer that need the most debate. –  Glen Lipka Jun 11 '10 at 2:10
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Wish I could give out gold stars for questions... OH WAIT! I can :)... I have spent all afternoon going back and looking at various sites I've done, different user test sessions and trying to work out how to fit tests for this very question into some of the testing that's coming up in the near future. This is going to cause me lost sleep, I just know it. Love it. –  Nathan-W Jun 11 '10 at 4:21
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Some great ideas for future experimenting Nathan! Having the Active tab defaulting to one that is not in the 1st position is an interesting prospect. Is this the sort of thing that Google Website Optimizer can help with in a Split A/B style test? –  JonW Jun 11 '10 at 8:42
    
Hmmm Im not sure Id want to use/be able to use Google A/B test to test this. You could randomise the 'active' starting tab - this would work if all the links in the tab stayed on the same overall parent page. If it was a more generic nav bar as Glen commented, Id guess each page would be a different URL, so you might get some consistency issues between pages. If I was testing this Id probably do it in longer blocks of time measuring each change over say the course of a week, and apply the change consistently throughout the site so not to cause confusion for users in a single session. –  Nathan-W Jun 11 '10 at 9:27
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I am going to disagree with you on this one. A logical structure to the site would match a users Mental Model, and by scattering the tabs in a seemingly random order this wouldn't equate to logical in my opinion.

OK, eye tracking studies may show that the user bounces around the screen when they are looking at it, but I don't believe that is a reason to divert from a logical structure.

As a seperate thought, perhaps eye-tracking studies show that the user jumps from the first to the last tab purely so they can get a concept of how long / how many tabs there are. Once they have the visual knowledge of how long or how many tabs there are they would then start at the first tab and work their way along from there.

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Agreed -- I believe the amount of time involved in the user deciphering why your structure defies logic will outweigh any benefit from attempting to conform to wandering eyes. –  Sam Sherwood Jun 10 '10 at 17:20
    
Although the number 1,2,3,4 are a logical order, that wasn't what I meant. Imagine the tabs are "Home, About Us, Partners and Products". There is no logical order. –  Glen Lipka Jun 10 '10 at 17:24
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I still think the Logical argument holds true here as well, Glen. If Products falls as the last tab it would be logical for the user to assume that it is less important than the preceeding tabs. It is a good thought topic however, and I have no evidence to support my opinions on this issue so I may be wrong. –  JonW Jun 11 '10 at 8:29
    
I think your follow up edit about working out how long the list is, then going back to the start to skim each label is plausible, even more eager to design some tests around this now! –  Nathan-W Jun 11 '10 at 9:18
    
I disagree. We are not talking about logic, we are talking about humans who work in ways that sometimes surprise us. Recently talking to a UX lead at Neudesic about this very thing...and they see that what Glen proposed above has been true in many tests (not available to me). –  JeroenEijkhof Jun 17 '10 at 18:57
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Interesting theory based on mammalian visual processing, with significant implications not only for tabs but for any menu or list. It's also against just about every HCI standard and style guide I can find, many based on years of research and operational experience, going all the way back to MIL-STD 1472. Could they all be wrong? There’s pretty firm research showing that the further a target item is in a menu, the slower the reaction time. For example:

  • Nilsen EL (1991). Perceptual-motor control in human computer interaction, Tech Rept 37. Ann Arbor, MI: The Cognitive Science and Machine Intelligence Laboratory, the University of Michigan.

  • Byrne MD, John R, Anderson JR, Douglass S, Matessa M (1999). Eye tracking the visual search of click-down menus. Human Factors in Computing Systems: Proceedings of CHI 99, pp. 402–409.

What Determines Order of Attention

The first rule of visual attention is that the eye is attracted to spots of high graphic contrast. That accounts for 80% of eye-tracking findings.

The second rules is that visual attention will follow text reading order, generally left to right and top to bottom for Western readers. This accounts for the F-pattern seen for many sites (the F-pattern is also a result of sites in fact being laid out in an F-pattern, but that’s really the same thing: the point is user read and scan based on their experience).

The third rule is that users can learn to peripherally ignore certain visual patterns that they’ve learned are irrelevant or not worth the effort of studying (e.g., things that look like advertisements, even though they deliberately have high visual contrast).

The third rule is not relevant to this case here.

Your theory appears to leverage the first rule, but with a graphically uniform array of items like a row of tabs, the whole thing has high visual contrast with the rest of the page. There’s nothing about either end that particularly draws the users attention any more than the middle.

That leaves the second rule, which is what the HCI standards rely on. When graphic contrast is uniform within a block of content, such as with a collection of undifferentiated tabs, Western users will scan left-right/top-bottom.

Eyetracking Data

In addition to the standards, this is what I see in eyetracking results. Within any graphically uniform block of content, you see either:

  • Gaze focused on the middle of the block, suggesting a quick glance at the block, and subsequent possibly preconscious decision that it’s not worth looking at more.

  • Gaze uniformly distributed over the block, suggesting and exhaustive study of it.

  • Gaze biased towards to top and/or left of the block, suggesting a reading-pattern scan.

What I don’t see is the gaze concentrated at the beginning and end of the block with a gaze hole in the middle. The heat map in your blog post is consistent with this, with every block showing one of the above three patterns and no holes. Gaze does not appear to jump to the end of lists. Indeed, the third gaze pattern is consistent with users reading the first few items, and if they don’t seem relevant, they skip all of the remaining items, including the last ones. This implies that if you put your second most important tab at the end some users may never even look at it.

Meanwhile, on the Serengeti

As for lions and zebras, if lions tend to pounce on the zebras at either end equally often, that just shows that lions don’t read. Actually, I think lions tend to target the zebra in the middle. They select the slowest looking one and then maneuver and stalk as close as they can, which usually puts the target in the middle of their visual field surrounded by more distance zebras in the background. The effect of the zebra stripes is to make it hard to continue tracking that target once all the zebras start running around in a panic. I don’t think the lion-zebra thing applies here since we thankfully don’t animate our tabs.

More Issues

Other concerns:

  • Users will tend to look at the current tab because it graphically contrasts with the remaining tabs (if it doesn’t you’re making your tabs wrong). If you put the second most important tab next to the first, then the user may be able to read both with a single fixation if the tab names are short enough. You can’t do better than that.

  • There is almost always a logical order to items in tabs, a list, or a menu. Order may be semantic, by frequency of use, by order of use, by convention (e.g., based on what other web sites do), and, if all else fails, alphabetical (under the hope that the user is looking for the same specific word you used). For example for an ecommerce page aimed at consumers the proper order is almost certainly Home, Products, Partners, Contact Us.

  • Where does the third most important tab go? Inside of the last tab since that’s where the user looked last? Or inside the first/current tab because that’s the closest to the most looked-at point? I don’t know, but more importantly your users won’t know. You’re disrupting their ability to strategically scan your tabs.

  • What about keyboard navigation? If “second most important” means that’s where users tend to go next, you’re making them tab through all the tabs taking the longest path for the most common navigation need.

Let’s Have Data

Anyway, this is all theory that can’t be resolved with debate. A pretty simple reaction time with eyetracking study should give the answer. But in the mean time I personally will stick to the HCI standards.

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Very thorough! :) However, look at this image. uitrends.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/heatmap.jpg Your points above should indicate NO GAPS, yes on the left, I see a clear gap in the middle. I think tabs work the same way. –  Glen Lipka Jun 11 '10 at 14:39
    
Yes, there’s a hole vertically among Hot Blogs, but the last item doesn’t have the 2nd strongest fixation frequency. It’s 7th. Maybe the 7th most important tab should be last. Or maybe not. Looking at other eye tracking heat maps in Google images, this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Holes can happen anywhere when the other two rules for order of attention apply. In this case, you happen to have some long strings in the middle that appear to be bringing in the third rule. –  Michael Zuschlag Jun 11 '10 at 15:46
    
Your 4 dot points under 'other concerns' absolutely convinces me Im doing the right thing (in the absence of supporting data). –  Nathan-W Jun 11 '10 at 21:36
    
"the further a target item is in a menu, the slower the reaction time" - I don't think this is relevant. The last item in a (popup) menu is relatively far away from the click point, so Fitts's law applies. It doesn't apply to the different tabs in a tab bar. –  Bennett McElwee Jun 21 '10 at 3:50
    
Ditto: "Let's have data." –  JeromeR Jun 21 '10 at 5:54
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This will depend on the number of tabs, how they are displayed, their contents, and the user's inclination to read. With a lot of tabs, the user won't always read all of them. There's a lot of room to break the flow of reading.

How tabs are displayed is a also a big factor because it determines how engaging it is to read the tab bar and how far the last tab from the first tab is. Let's not forget that tabs aren't always displayed fairly. Some tabs are rendered differently so they're highlighted.

The contents of the tab bars will determine when the user will find what he is looking for. If he finds it in the 2nd or 3rd tab, and there are 7 tabs, it's not necessary for him to read the last tab.

The user's inclination to read is affected by his reading skill's, attention span, multitasking skills, and other similar factors. Some types of people love to start a lot of things, but they don't always finish them.

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Good points. If you look at Yahoo!'s frontpage with the 3 tabs for logged in users there is a lot more than simple tags representation going on. They have indicators and colors and use everything to convey their 'importance' (whatever importance means). –  JeroenEijkhof Jun 17 '10 at 20:08
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I'm enjoying this debate, but there are two points that I don't think have been touched on yet.

1) There are conventions (not necessarily logical ones) about the order of menu items. I expect to see 'Home' in position 1, but I expect to see 'Contact Us' in the last position (if I expect anything at all).

2) Do users ever have trouble finding the right item from a selection of 4? Even with double that I can't imagine it being a major issue. Anyone's research show otherwise?

Also: How do you define 'important'? Do important items have to be in the navigation? Ecommerce sites often display products on the homepage and arguably the most important next step for both the business and the user is 'buy now' or 'add to basket', but neither are included in the nav.

So, no answers from me, just more questions...

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I tend to put contact us as the last link as well, but probably more so out of habit than real research. Why do you expect to see it last? –  Nathan-W Jun 11 '10 at 8:26
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There is also a discussion not taking place about whether Tabs are the best options in this situation. Contact Us, and Home would work better as menu buttons, not Tabs. Tab conventions would be seperate sections of the main topic (ie on a Mobile Phone site the main topic is a Nokia XX with tabs for Spec, Reviews, Photos etc). However, this is a side issue and shouldn't distract from this interesting conversation as it's not relevant to the discussion really. –  JonW Jun 11 '10 at 8:47
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@NW - I expect to see it last because people position it there out of habit. It's a dated example as it tends to be located in a utility nav or even just the footer these days. Nothing wrong with habit if it works. –  Rob Jun 11 '10 at 8:51
    
@JW I did flag the "not tabs" or "not just tabs" point in my earliest answer to Glen's question :P @Rob - completely agree - don't fix it if it ain't broke always works for me. –  Nathan-W Jun 11 '10 at 9:20
    
"Important" means (in this example) the section that you want to emphasize and would prefer the user to visit. Like "Priority". Executives often have this ranking in their head and insist (in my opinion) on the wrong ordering to achieve that goal. –  Glen Lipka Jun 11 '10 at 14:34
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This isn't actually a theoretical question at all. Your analytics will tell you which tabs your visitors actually click on and go to. If you were asking a group of visitors to look at the homepage for a few seconds and then remember the tabs, they'd probably forget the middle of the list or get it in the wrong order -- that's normal. However, that's not what visitors to a website do.

In my experience, visitors exploring a well-designed site do tend to go from left to right or top to bottom through the navigation. But you'll probably find that many visitors go right to their desired page rather than exploring. A typical site will have about 10% of visitors going to the "About" page, no matter where you put it. And, as an earlier commenter pointed out, we expect "Contact" at the end, so the visitor who wants to find your address quickly may automatically tend to hit that far-right tab, and be frustrated to find your products page there.

But you can launch, test traffic and bounce rate at the various pages, and adjust the order if it seems to be affecting visitors' use of the site in a direction you don't want.

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There's an effect in psychology with recalling lists of items, where people tend to remember the beginning and the end items - and tend to forget the ones in the middle.

See diagram

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_position_effect

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Even if you are right and users do look at the tabs most left and most right the most, this doesn't necessarily mean you are better placing your most important tabs in these positions. The user although looking at the tab on the right, may actually be thinking it's the least important (due to its position at the end). After all, in general, don't we always put the least important things at the end? So the user's mental model becomes "things at end = least important".

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I wouldn't make that assumption that users would naturally agree with your statement. I think the reality is that users don't know what mental model to hold based on tab placement. –  Glen Lipka Jun 11 '10 at 21:09
    
The question is also, do users even think in the terms of "importance". The horizontal mapping of tabs actually would more closely denote that we are giving them equal importance, while a list is easily thought of as most to least important. –  JeroenEijkhof Jun 17 '10 at 20:10
    
interesting points! I guess all our answers agree that you shouldn't place the second most important tab at the end because none of us know precisely how users view the order of importance, if indeed there is any, as you correctly point out Jeroen. –  Lisa Jun 24 '10 at 20:05
    
Glen I wouldn't dream of trying to say that users actually think that way. I'm just adding fuel to the fire by suggesting how someone 'may' see the order. –  Lisa Jun 24 '10 at 20:08
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Hmm, I think I agree with Jon. Even if they're scanning, the majority of (Western) users will read left-to-right surely?

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I think it really depends on the logic of any given project.

For E.g., an ecommerce site may want to call attantion to a special, perhaps 2nd more important tab by placing it on the right side. (See screenshot).

If the flow dictates a particular order, then the 2nd more important tab should be placed as the second-most-left one.

It really depends...

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Say the most important thing first and the least important last.

Now I know this is far from tabs, but what users pay attention to is what they will remember the most and if a heat-map shows that the users look at the most right tabs after the first tab then why not put what we think is 2nd most important there - it will reduce their time to find it and reduce the cognitive load on trying to find things (given the names are good).

Do users think in terms of importance at all by the way?

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The last tab has more whitespace around it (on the right) and so is more noticeable and readable. So it's not surprising that the last tab has slightly higher clickthrough.

So that's kind of interesting. But others have pointed out that there are other considerations to tab order, such as logic and conventions.

If you're really concerned about users clicking some tabs more than others,
why not just make them bigger or bolder or outlined? Then you'll give them the attention boost without having to move them to some unnatural position.

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I actually have some click data on this that showed leftmost tabs were clicked more. The data was collected using Google Analytics event tracking to see if users were using the new tabs added to a client's site. I haven't heavily analysed it but the trend is certainly distinctly clear.

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why would you want to make them read all those other tabs? why would you essentially create noise, interrupting the user's task with tabs you're reasonably confident they don't want? could hick's law have any relevance, e.g. the more tabs a user must read to reach their desired tab adds more to the decision matrix? i suppose if the first/last reading order comments are true, then no.

honestly but not harshly, this sounds more like a sales thing than a helpful design. of course, without knowing the actual tab names and site type (e-com vs. personal dashboard-type site), that's just an unfounded criticism. :)

thanks for raising the discussion, though. we're currently discussing the orientation of tabs on a project so any research/discussion is personally helpful.

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