Eye tracking is a technology that allows you to see and record what a person is looking at, and for how long. One way it is used is to study web sites to see where people are looking on a web page, where they look first, second, etc. It’s a pretty interesting technology, one of the benefits being that you don’t have to rely on what people SAY they are looking at, but can collect the data directly. Like any technology, however, it’s not perfect, and one of the problems with eye tracking is that you can’t just give people a web site to look at and then assume that where they look is what they are “really interested” in.
We underestimate the effect our instructions have on where someone looks. Look at the picture at the beginning of this post. In research by Yarbus, people were shown this picture, and then given different instructions of what to think about while looking at the picture. Below are the eye gaze patterns matched with the instructions that people were given:
Proceed with caution. To me this data says: a) If you are using eye tracking as a technique to evaluate how people are using your website then you must be very careful about the instructions you give, and you must make sure you are giving everyone the exact same instructions. b) You can’t assume that just because people look at one spot on your website when they first see it that they will always look there. It might depend on what they were coming back to do. c) It’s nice to have a measure that doesn’t rely on what the user says or how they think they are reacting, but even these “objective” measures aren’t as objective as we think!
This research is from way back, but I believe it is still relevant. I haven’t found any recent replication of it yet. If you know of any please do pass on the reference:
Yarbus, A. L. (1967). Eye Movements and Vision (B. Haigh, trans.), New York: Plenum
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