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UI Design Newsletter – February, 2006

In This Issue

Where are you when I need you??? (or... Ending the search for search)

Kath Straub, Ph.D., CUA, Chief Scientist of HFI, looks at users' expectations of where items should be placed on your Web page.

The Pragmatic Ergonomist

Dr. Eric Schaffer, Ph.D., CUA, CPE, Founder and CEO of HFI offers practical advice.

Where are you when I need you??? (or... Ending the search for search)

Users have baggage. And they bring it to your site.

Just as with any relationships, users' previous experiences – good or bad – will influence the expectations and hopes that they will have for their relationship with your site. And as with human relationships, this means that if you really want it to work, you need to know some of the gory details of their past to make the future smooth. That's the bad news. The good news is that we are only talking about Web sites.

The expectations that users bring to Web sites largely reflects patterns that they have learned across many other sites. Patterns like where to find things they think they need: local navigation, back-to-home, search. And how to control or avoid things they think they don't, like advertising.

An interesting thing about expectations is that they often evolve with experience. A recent study by Shaihk and Lenz (2006) set out to determine whether users' expectations for where key elements occur on home pages have evolved. Their findings suggest that users have developed clear expectations about the placement of things they want, and things they want to avoid.

It's not rocket science

Shaihk and Lenz wanted to know if users expect Web page elements to be in the same place they did in 2001 (Bernard, 2001). Particularly, they were interested in expected locations for:

  • Back-to-home
  • Site search
  • Internal links
  • About us
  • Advertisements

In their simple but effective study, Shaihk and Lenz asked 142 undergraduates to paste labeled stickers to a 5x5 paper grid to indicate where they expected to find the objects on a Web page.

Their findings show that the participants expectations have not changed.


back to home

Users have a clear expectation that the back-to-home links should appear in the upper left of the page. A number look to the center or left of the very bottom of the page.

Site search:

site search

Users look for search in the banner area, most frequently in the upper right, but also on the left just below the logo.

Internal links:

internal links

Users believe that internal links should appear on the left of the pages, below the header.

About Us:

about us

Users don't have clear predictions for About Us. Many today look toward the bottom for this information.



Since 2001, users have learned that advertisers use the top of the page for paid banners. Once they figured it out, they started to ignore that space, effectively becoming "banner blind." Advertisers migrated the ads to the right side. But the users have figured that out, too, and now expect ads will be in the banner or on the right hand side of the page.

After changes upon changes, we are more or less the same...

Despite the increase in the user base and the evolution that occurred for Web technologies, users' expectations about where to look for things on the page have not changed much. Users have diffuse expectations about where to look for things they don't often look for (About Us). They have clear expectations about the things they pay attention to. They pay attention to things they want (search, internal links, back-to-home) and things that they want to avoid (advertising).

While the Shaihk and Lenz (2006) findings are not surprising, they are important.


Shaihk, A.D. and Lenz, K. (2006). Where's the Search? Re-examining User Expectations of Web Objects, Usability News, 8.1.

This follow-up study is tremendously helpful for practitioners. I'd like to see "login" added to the list of common Web objects studied in the future. Thanks for this very applied research.

Michelle Bejian Lotia
University of Michigan


A simple tool for helping others understand that it's not where they "think others will think" site visitors will look – but where they *actually do* look. Making the science of usability easy for project stakeholders to understand as critical to design success is job #1!

Thank you for sharing this.

Rebecca St. Martin
Web Sites That Fly

Anticipating people's expectations is the hardest part of creating an intranet site. I have help developed and organized some for both Deloitte and Arthur Andersen, including working with Jim Voorhies at Deloitte. There truly is a fine line between location, graphics, content and speed. All four must be in play.

Christopher J. Dove
Baker & McKenzie

Reader comments on this and other articles.

The Pragmatic Ergonomist, Dr. Eric Schaffer

I consider it part of my lifestyle to watch what people expect in the organization and operation of software (and even in day-to-day activities). Knowing these population stereotypes and seeing how they vary by domain and culture is fun. It's sort of like bird watching. Getting research on expectations is unusual and wonderful.

Knowledge of population stereotypes guides design. If you know people look for internal links on the left, putting them there will greatly improve performance. If your design works the way people expect, they can concentrate on the content (which should sometimes be unexpected) as opposed to figuring out your design.

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