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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.

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.

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

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

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.

Toyota Prius
Site search:
Toyota Prius
Internal links:
Toyota Prius
About Us:
Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

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.

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

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Reader comments

Michelle Bejian Lotia
University of Michigan

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.

Rebecca St. Martin
Web Sites That Fly

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

Christopher J. Dove
Baker & McKenzie

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.

Narendra Singhal, Reliance Industries, Ltd.

I feel "Login" and "Logout" are also significant links worth a mention. To speak about my own experience, I expect the "Logout" link to be located in the top-right corner of the screen, similar to the Gmail Web site. I think it is very logical for us to expect the "Logout" in this place because we think and read from left to right. May be for an Urdu Web site, the user expectation will be exactly opposite.

Chetan Murthy, ArisGlobal

When an Enterprise application needs to be developed, it is absolutely imperative that the Menu or internal links should never be displayed on left or right. It should always be in Top [Horizontal], this gives lot of real estate and a flexibility to improve the usability.

Kimberly Kubalek,

Thanks for this great article. Sometimes it is difficult to persuade a creative client that his idea for a "cool way to set up the navigation" may not make users very happy. Over and over, I have pointed to your research for support. The best design is often the most obvious, clear design. Thank you!

Scott Lary

Hmm... having the 'participants' paste in items is, I believe, less precise than than using eye tracking to actually see where they look when you prompt them to do a particular task. Maybe these results have not changed because of your methodology where you got what you expected to get? Thanks for the food for thought.


Participants used in the research were undergrad. students. The research tell us the nature of the structure those sites have. Result for 'About us' are bit surprising. Maybe it comes from students looking at more college and university sites where they do have HTML links at the bottom. Back-to-home is on the spot. Wondering if the researchers probed further to tell us if it was the logo.

I hope people looking at this research would understand the user profile and not generalize the research.

I am not sure about the number look. What are we referring to here.


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