The mysterious S. pointed me to Eyetrack III, a study that used eye tracking equipment to record exactly how people viewed a web page. When I was in grad school, I knew a couple of Cognitive Science guys who spent time in the labs programming eye trackers for their experiments. The machines capture the rapid eye movements both voluntary and involuntary, making it easier to see exactly what is being looked at for how long.
I’d thought then it would be useful for understanding Graphic Design, so it’s cool to see that someone has done this. The study made use of EyeTools, a company out of San Francisco that uses eye tracking gear to provide viewing data on web pages. You can actually do your own study over the web for $100/person. A particularly neat feature is the heatmap, which shows what parts of your page are attracting more attention.
A word of caution: this data tells you what people are looking at and for how long, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you what they’re thinking. Mistaking observations for conclusions is dangerous, and I could see this kind of information in the wrong hands leading down a horrible path. I would read the article with that in mind before you go stripping out all your photos and put ugly headlines right in the middle of layout so eyes trip over them. I would get a design professional, knowledgable in the Ways of Gestalt, to help interpret that data. It wouldn’t hurt to really study Understanding Comics too…it is a fantastic treatment of visual communication in a form we’re familiar with.