Eye tracking technology

24. 02. 2015
What do we look at and what do we ignore? Eye tracking shows movement which answers the initial question. The following article was primarily written for our partners, but it is equally interesting for us.


Eye tracking technology
The use of eye tracking technology to analyse and improve user experience (UX) online, is something that’s always intrigued us. So we decided to do a bit of research into this subject to find out more.

Eye tracking technology, put simply, measures eye activity. It tries to answer questions like:

  • What do we look at and what do we ignore?
  • How do our eyes react to different stimuli?

But where did this technique, and the technology, come from?

The birth of eye tracking
Surprisingly enough, the first eye tracking device was used by Edmund Huey, back in the early 1900s. It was made from a special contact lens that was connected to a metal pointer, which moved when the eye moved. Albeit fairly crude, this was the first device that was able to record reading behaviour.

How it works today
These days, eye tracking technology works by emitting an infra red light towards a person’s eyes. A camera then tracks the reflection of that light source in the eyes, together with the position of the eye and other visible information, such as the dilation of the pupil.

Source of image:

All this information is gathered by a computer program, which then turns it into heat maps, opacity maps, bee swarms, scan paths or selected metrics for areas of interest, that are overlaid on digital products, like this:

Marketers and designers can then use these outputs to see which sections of a webpage people look at the most, which are rarely looked at and the most importantly why. It can also be used to analyse other digital marketing, such as mobile apps or emails.

By using eye tracking techniques, the customer can become part of the design team. It brings more insight into actual customer behaviour and preferences.

Eye tracking and user experience (UX)
Eye tracking is most useful for improving the customer experience online, commonly known as user experience (UX).

There are many definitions of user experience, but one which seems widely-accepted is the explanation that Erin Daniels gave at the Mobile Devices User Experience Conference 2013. Erin is a world expert on intuitive design and user experience design. She sees user experience as having two strands:

As the diagram shows, the optimal user experience comes from combining beauty, emotion and meaning (things that will be subjective to your user and are more difficult to measure), with function, performance and ease of use.

Eye tracking can address both of these strands. Believe it or not, the latest software can analyse the emotional responses of users. And during an eye tracking study, people are asked to conduct certain tasks on the website, so it’s possible to think of tasks that focus on each of the strands.

Eye tracking technology can bring really useful insights – as long as the preparation is good and the results are well-analysed.

Each business will have its own reasons for using eye tracking technology, and its own aims for each individual study. So it’s really down to the business to decide which elements of the user experience they most want to test.

The future for eye tracking
Eye tracking technology is still underestimated and far from mainstream. For decades, it’s been mainly used in specialist environments such as scientific labs.

The reason for this was twofold:

  1. Tracking equipment was expensive
  2. The tools were obtrusive and could distract the person being observed. That meant their behaviour could be ‘untypical’ or could be misinterpreted.

However, there’s since been a big leap forward in the technology. State-of-the-art eye trackers offer high measurement accuracy without the need for head fixation with unique freedom of head movement that allows natural behavior of test subjects. Some eye trackers are equally effective with light and dark eye color, as well as in different lighting conditions, and because of their small size they are unobtrusive and easy to carry. This, together with the increasing affordability, means it’s becoming more of an option for small and medium-sized businesses.

We should say though that eye tracking won’t answer all your user experience questions. It should complement, rather than substitute, best practices for user-centred design.

However, it can help you gain a much deeper understanding of your customers (it should reveal things that your customers aren’t even conscious they’re doing) and provide better insights into how your customers behave online.

And that means you can make more informed, intelligent decisions about marketing and design, which should ultimately make your business more profitable and sustainable in the long term.

Author: UX Focus

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