Readers choose linear navigation for slideshows

Research published yesterday by the Online Journalism Review suggests that online readers tend to use linear navigation tools when viewing a slideshow.

The study had 34 people view a 40-slide show at washingtonpost.com. The show provided three options for linear navigation: a forward arrow button, a “next” button and autoplay. There were two non-linear options: an index of slide numbers and a thumbnail gallery.

Now, this was a really small sample, and the participants were exposed to only one slideshow so we can debate whether navigation choice was influenced by the relative prominence of each option. We also don’t know how familiar participants were with multimedia design conventions, but …

The results were pretty lopsided. Linear navigation was by far the most popular means of navigation. And those who used it tended to spend more time with the show (they were told to stop whenever they had “had enough”) and to view more of the slides.

As the authors say… it’s an intriguing area for further research.

Is the linear orientation to looking through material so hard-wired into our media usage that it is, and will continue to be, the preferred way to take in media? Even when it was visual information – as this was – and did not logically need to follow a narrative thread – people preferred to move through in the order it was presented. What does this observation tell us about innovation in digital storytelling and our audience’s tolerance for new design paradigms.