The way to the results – Eyetracking, Part 1

Elsewhere we say: All that cannot be measured is decoration. Fortunately, we can measure many things. Everything we have already investigated, measured and transformed into sales-promoting results with the help of the knowledge gained can be implemented immediately as well-founded design decisions. A key method here is eye tracking.

Usability studies come in different shapes and colors. Some are used to determine the future requirements for a digital service. Others when you want to analyze the actual effectiveness of existing solutions. These could be websites, programs or other digital products. Eyetracking is the right method for this case.

How does eye tracking work?

Eyetracking registers eye movements during interaction with a (digital) product. It is often used to measure the perception of websites, apps or other systems. It is almost indispensable when testing video games or the user interfaces of ticket system terminals, to name a few examples.

Three elements are obviously indispensable in such a test setup:

  • The Hardware
  • A test object (such as a service, an app, a system)
  • test taker

There are a number of test devices on the market, but in most cases, they work according to the same principle: infrared transmitters and sensors measure and record eye activity. Also important: These devices are available in stationary and mobile versions.

Eye-tracking systems allow the presentation on a computer screen that is positioned exactly in front of the test person. In some cases, the sensors are already installed in the housing, which makes the test setup minimally invasive, so to speak. Everything on the screen triggers eye movements that can then be recorded – these can be static content, such as on a website, but also moving content, such as in a film.

The second type is mobile eye trackers. They allow the test persons to move freely in the room because the sensors are built into a frame. These devices make it possible to use them in the natural environment of the object under investigation, for example in a factory or in the underground. This type of eye tracker is also often used in market research, for example when it comes to optimizing the shelf placement of products in the supermarket.

Before and After – the two most important application scenarios

There are exactly two standard scenarios for an eye-tracking study. If a service needs to be redesigned, i.e. a website, an app, etc., it makes sense to use this methodology to identify and document the weak points of the current appearance. The second scenario follows accordingly later when a pre-final version is available to see if the concept works.

The quality of the test material is important because exactly these details are measured in an eye-tracking examination: The layout of the individual elements, their context, their size, and their color. This means that we cannot expect any meaningful results from the examination of a prototype or wireframe. Empty boxes marked “Placeholders”, “Lorem ipsum” or “Content Follows” may trigger eye movements and so-called fixations, but not those that we would measure with a serious design.

And another point is worth noting: the recruitment process of subjects for an eye-tracking study is already important for its outcome. Many devices on the market impose restrictions that exclude their use by people with impaired vision. It is worth keeping this in mind when investigating offers for an older target group, for example.

Sight – these findings provide us with an eye-tracking study

Eyetracking studies show how a user views a digital product or an analog object, i.e. which elements attract the eye, which elements are skipped, with which intensity different areas of a website are perceived – and in which order all this happens. The answers to these questions are presented in the different visual form.

A so-called fixation – a fixed view – then appears as a colored circle, whereby the circle diameter increases with the viewing time. Overlapping circles indicate that an element has been viewed repeatedly.

The lines connecting the individual circles are so-called saccades. They show the path of lightning-fast eye movements from one point of attention to the next point of fixation. During these jumps, the eye is more or less blind. Elements on the path of these saccades are not consciously registered. If we follow the paths that were only flown over or scanned with an object during the evaluation, we also know what the subject does not see or recognize.

If we superimpose the images of each individual test, a heat map is created that clearly shows which main areas attract users’ attention. A red area indicates an area of literally high attention. The same result can also be processed in the form of a focus map – the same areas are displayed as brightly lit.

Universal Knowledge

It is particularly interesting for the design process if several eye tracking studies confirm each other and thus universal findings become usable. They form the basis for a design that is not taste-oriented but evidence-based. In the meantime, data is available for almost every application and context. There is now also sufficient evidence for more or less known cases of suspicion or experience. These include the following:

  • In the western cultural environment, the general reading direction is from left to right. That’s for sure, anything less. People read differently, depending on intention and context. Structural anchors such as a clear visual text structure that minimizes saccades help to counter these differences.
  • Human faces, especially eyes and mouth attract glances magnetically. This may be an advantage if a product is promoted by celebrities, for example. In the case of a website, faces can draw attention to important areas – or distract attention by placing them in the wrong place. The placement of such photos must, therefore, be carefully considered.
  • The numerical writing of numbers (i.e. “123” instead of “one hundred and twenty-three” is often the most conspicuous part of a text.
  • Call-to-action elements are perceived faster if they appear in an eye-catching clickable button format instead of just as text elements.

The role of eye tracking in test arsenal

Eye-tracking data are a valuable addition to the results from other test procedures, such as usability tests. Usability tests are a frequently used method to examine digital products. Test persons are observed how they solve certain tasks (find and order product X on the website).

While this type of test helps to determine how well specific features are used and also to gather all kinds of opinions about a website, it does not tell us anything about how and whether individual elements are perceived at all on a website. With the help of eye tracking, however, it is possible to reliably determine how a user reacts visually to an offer.

Without eye-tracking data, we can not uniquely determine for example not clicked on a particular item. Was he just not interested, or didn’t he notice? Eyetracking is also often used for so-called 5-second tests. They allow us to analyze what information and elements a visitor perceive during the first contact with a website.

Eye tracking can be used standalone or part of a larger study, depending on the objective. Simply put: If our core question is: “Does the user notice this element at all”, then this question can be answered clearly by eye-tracking. If, on the other hand, we want to learn from the general perception of the site why and how users use our offer at all, then a more complex usability test scenario with detailed interviews and eye-tracking is the more effective way.

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