We all remember playing the game Battleship as kids, where the goal was to sink your opponent’s fleet of ships by guessing where they were placed on a grid. The origins of this simple game actually goes back to World War I, when the Allied Navy had developed large artillery guns but didn’t have the technology—such as sophisticated Radar—to know where to aim. Just as in the real life naval battles of a hundred years ago, the game of Battleship involves a series of guesses.

So what’s that have to do with smart website design? Well, here’s an easy trick to remember if you want to win the game. Line up your entire fleet along the outer edges of the grid. While the mathematical odds of being sunk by your opponent are theoretically the same no matter where you place your ships, in fact recent research into human nature proves that our guesses aren’t truly random. Instead, we tend to adhere to predictable patterns when it comes to the focus of our attention on the grid, and the same preferences hold true in the digital world.

The trick in Battleship is to avoid the places that your opponent is most likely to look. In a 2009 study that looked specifically at where people are most likely to focus on a grid, a phenomenon known as “the middle bias” was identified. Put simply, our eyes are three times more likely to gravitate towards the upper middle section of a grid or screen than towards a random location. The top most frequently chosen spots are all clustered right around the middle. Anything on the outer edges is far down the list.

By now, I hope the implications have sunk in. If there’s important information you want a visitor to quickly find on your website, don’t hide it along the edges—take advantage of the “middle bias” where their attention will hit first. Like the game of Battleship, web screens are a highly visual medium, and as we continue to adapt our thinking and processing to the digital world, smart design and placement will continue to influence our visual habits, especially when it comes to what we notice and engage with online.

This is only one of the more recent findings that new research into human behavior is revealing when it comes to how people interact with their screens. In another study, researchers used eye-tracking technology to see how people made choices when a number of options were displayed across a web screen. The findings showed that where the subjects looked on the screen depended on how many options they had in front of them. The more options on the screen, the more that their eyes settled near the center of the display. Those first locations remained the most popular spots even when additional screens were shown with more options. Just as importantly, the study demonstrated that decisions about which options to choose were heavily influenced by where their eyes focused.

Shlomo Benartzi, who chairs UCLA’s Behavioral Decision-Making Group in the Anderson School of Management, reaches this conclusion in his new book on web design called “The Smarter Screen: Surprising Ways to Influence and Improve Online Behavior:”

We like to imagine our choices as reflections of our conscious desires… But this data suggests that our choices are often shaped by the perceptual habits of the eye, which are drawn to certain items and areas of the screen. Sometimes, salience matters more than preference.

The results of this and similar studies is that subconscious preferences can play a larger role in shaping decisions on screen. Again, the implication should seem obvious: If you want a visitor to your home or landing page to make a particular selection from a range of options, place that option in the center of the selections and not on the edges.

At Bluetext, we spend a lot of time evaluating visitor preferences and habits to maximize their engagement when designing websites and digital marketing campaigns for our clients. As with all digital experiences today, our clients are competing for the attention of their target audiences, and understanding human nature can mean the difference between conversion and abandonment when it comes to their customers.


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