Jul 10 2007

Web Sight

Eye-tracking technology can improve your users' Web experiences.

As Web sites get more sophisticated, so do the ways to measure them. It’s no surprise then that more companies are tracking users’ eyes on their Web site to help judge the site’s effectiveness.

Twenty years ago, studying a user’s eye activity involved prohibitive costs and cumbersome head-mounted gear that included a chin rest and the seldom-loved “bite bar.” Today, a simple pair of goggles does the trick, or you can go wireless by using special monitors that calibrate the viewer’s eye position. Based on these improvements and lower costs, eye tracking has become a standard tool for many Web site usability practitioners, and more companies are bringing the technology in-house.

Technology varies, but essentially all eye-tracking gear is designed to follow eye movement and record the activity. These recordings typically use sampling rates between 50 and 240 Hz, creating a detailed data set that can then be displayed in numerous ways. Popular outputs include the heat map (a color-coded record showing areas of high user attention in vivid colors) and a gaze trace (a graph showing the sequential history of eye activity).

Some systems go further and monitor eye activity as an indicator of behavior. San Diego-based EyeTracking Inc. first developed its method conducting research for the U.S. military on decision making under stressful conditions. Now it uses eye-movement patterns to interpret user reactions to a home page.

 “Not only is it valuable to know where people are looking but also to understand how their eyes are changing as they look at something,” says Sylvia Knust, director of commercial research at EyeTracking Inc. “Anything that requires a lot of cognitive effort, your pupils actually react to that.”

The Right Time and Place

Eye-tracking studies are a great way to learn more about how visitors interact with your site, and the full-color charts this method produces are increasingly finding their way into senior management inboxes. But keep these principles in mind to separate techno-hype from genuine customer insight:

Eye Tracking Is One Tool: Complex design challenges often require the use of multiple methods. Most experts maintain the traditional “think out loud” method of observing users, accompanied by probing questions from a trained facilitator, will provide 90 percent of the information you need. Eye tracking adds an additional layer to that information.

Eye Tracking Is a Reality Check: The team at Frisco, Texas-based Fujitsu Transaction Solutions used eye tracking to test not only their software interface but also the complete design of their new self-order fast-food kiosks. The findings revealed one of eye tracking’s most valuable benefits: a chance to validate user responses.

Participants unanimously said they were able to find the receipt easily, but the eye-tracking recordings showed a different result. Users’ eyes were actually scanning everywhere to locate it. With this knowledge, the team improved their product. It was a welcome finding. Kent Schrock, director of marketing programs, estimates that saving six seconds per transaction can improve the bottom line by 2 percent. “In this industry, that literally is the difference between making it and not making it,” he says.

Don’t Go Mobile: The current crop of eye-tracking gear is not suited to low-resolution screens, such as those of mobile phones and PDAs. The team at Melbourne, Australia-based Sensis learned this lesson when they tried an eye-tracking study on mobile devices. “You could see the eye moving, but you couldn’t see with clarity what they were looking at,” says design manager Brett Collinson. “We’ll come back to it in a year when the technology has improved.”

Don’t Go With the Flow: Eye tracking is best suited to information-dense, high-traffic Web pages that are critical to your business; most commonly, this is a home page. You won’t learn much from examining an online press release and would probably be better served through traditional facilitation tactics. These methods also are more effective for assessing a user’s ability to progress through a series of pages, such as a shopping cart or online ordering process.

Get a Baseline: Eye tracking is an excellent tool to use before undergoing a major redesign of an important Web page. It gives a detailed, quantifiable baseline to determine how quickly users can find key information, how prominent key sales-related content is on the screen, and more. Using this baseline, the team can then assess whether new design variations improve the baseline results.

IT Takeaway
Eye tracking is increasingly worth a look as gear improves and costs fall.

• Use eye-tracking techniques in conjunction with other user testing methods rather than a sole source of feedback.
• It’s not plug and play: Don’t invest in eye-tracking gear unless you have in-house expertise with the hardware and software.
Dan Skeen is director of search engine marketing for Quarry (www.quarry.com), a communications agency in Waterloo, Ontario.