Imagine we are developing a usability test.  We are testing a web page and we ask the user to do a certain task.  We see him going from one section to another with the mouse, he clicks certain places until he successfully completes the task. We see him smiling, admiring his own intuition, but his face changes when we start asking if he remembers how he did the task he just did, if he saw advertising or if it was hard to find the element he was looking for. He doesn't remember. He cannot put into words what his reasoning was.

This example illustrates how if our usability test depended only on a questionnaire based on the memory of the user, the report would be slanted and the results would not accurately reflect what had transpired. The explanation for this is clear: users have  irrational behavior most of the time and this is a reason why we need to go one step further. Eye Tracking is an effective tool that allows us to have another view (pun intended) of the facts, through the observation and recording of the users' eyes measuring aspects such as pupil dilation and movements.

It is a technology in vogue, although not at all new, with applications in many different areas, such as psychological research or package design. It is in web design where it is gaining ground the quickest.  Analysis from eye tracking can lead to findings that would be impossible to gather with other test methods. Eye tracking seeks to see through the users’ eyes in order to understand what they are really looking for and where they are searching to find it.

How does it work?

The interest in this tool focuses on the so called “fixing points,” which are the areas where a user’s gaze stops moving long enough to process what they are seeing.  It also focuses on the eye movement between fixing points known as “saccadic movements,” which shows the route the eyes trace between the fixing points.

An Eye Tracker manages to record a great amount of data per second that can be analyzed and interpreted to explain behavior such as:  fixations and overlooked elements, the time of each fixation (related to the degree of difficulty when finding an element or completing a task), the length of a fixation (which shows how comprehensible an element is) or the number of fixations on an element (related to distraction or with a contradictory element).

Conventional usability tests do not provide enough information to find solutions to particular problems, however, with eye tracking techniques more details can be obtained.  For example, the relative duration of each fixation on the elements of the web page can be seen through a “heat map”; the map highlights in red the areas with the majority of fixation activity. Additionally, the fixations are represented with circles in those places where the participant’s gaze stopped, the numbers in each spot indicating the chronological order of the fixations and different sizes of the circles indicating the time of each fixation.

When is the ideal time to use it?

This technology can improve the understanding of the behavior a user shows during a usability test and allows us to create more specific solutions. However, under no circumstances should it replace other qualitative research techniques; it does not replace surveys and anecdotal notes.  Data from a study using this tool can indicate that the users spend more time looking at a particular element, what it cannot tell us is the reason why.  This information can only be discovered through interviews, observation and the experience of the facilitator.  Studies take time and they need to be interpreted by an expert with enough knowledge and experience to analyze data that the Eye Tracking provides.  The question then is whether it is convenient to create a specialized group in Eye Tracking or outsource it to consultants or specialized companies.  Because it can require a significant investment, it would only be recommended to create a team with specialists in Eye Tracking if such studies are going to be carried out regularly or if the final result will be justified by the fact that these studies obviously have a greater investment than traditional testing studies.

Eye Tracking tests imply much more than just turning on the device and pointing it at the users’ eyes.  In addition to the calibration of the device, a broad understanding of the methodology is needed to design the studies as well as analyze the results. Without this, the actual behavior of the user may be overlooked or misdiagnosed.  Therefore, the costs of time, effort and expenses that creating a team would produce, makes the outsourcing of Eye Tracking an attractive alternative to know qualitatively and in-depth what the real experience of the users is.

At Celerative, our understanding users and their experiences which we have gleaned from app design, software, and even from everyday elements on the street like cars, are at the center of what we do.  Eye Tracking is one of many techniques we use to understand more about what is going on with users.  It has been used in addition to other techniques and supported by other technologies such as electro-encephalography, Galvanic Response and face reading.

The challenge we propose then, consists of analyzing a project and when it is necessary to do a traditional usability test, when to apply Eye Tracking and when to accompany it with other techniques, technologies or complementary dynamics. Every technique we employ is toward the end of having in-depth understanding of users.