A reader asked me to respond to an eye-tracking study. I offered a “mechanic’s” response in Help visitors focus and reap the rewards. Here, I’ll respond with some basics about eye-tracking studies that everyone should know before using them.
In a nutshell, eye-tracking studies involve people looking at something while a laser bounces off their eyes and keeps track of where the eye is pointing. Note that I didn’t write, “What the eye is seeing,” or, “Where the eye is looking.” This distinction is critical and understanding it forms the basis of this post.
While most people think that eye-tracking studies show researchers where people are looking on a web page, but that’s a bad interpretation of the information being presented. What is being demonstrated is where the eye is pointing. Where the eye is pointing has very little to do with what people are looking at.
Web usability — the last bastion of eye-tracking studies
It’s pretty well known in every other discipline — from sports psychology to criminology to traffic safety studies — that the eye misses quite a bit. Demonstrations of this go back to Dr. Jerome Lettvin’s “Frog’s Eye Concept” at MIT in the early 1960s and can be found regularly in scientific journals.
The thrust of these studies is that the eye misses so much that even the most intense “read” of something leave the majority of the information undelivered to the mind and brain. Psychologists, psycho-linguists and neurophysiologists will tell you it doesn’t matter what the eye’s pointing at, only what the brain is focusing the eye on and what the brain has told the mind is really worth investigating that’s important.
They’ll also tell you that the best way to stop the eye from focusing and the mind from seeing is to have the hands doing something at the same time, something like controlling the cursor with a mouse.
Do I have your attention?
The real question is, “How often does the eye focus and defocus while it’s looking at the Web page?” We focus on things that have our attention. It doesn’t matter what the eye stops on; it matters what the eye stops and focuses on.
Here’s an exercise that illustrates this point: Take ten seconds to look at something you see every day but don’t really notice. Look out your office window, or step into your back yard. Next, without looking, write down everything you remember seeing. Most people can catalogue the big things: the building across the street, a patio table. Some people can catalogue gross detail, such as colors and shapes. A few people can catalogue minor details like shadings, hues or ornamentation. People who are able to catalogue minor details usually have very specific training. They may be artists, photographers or law enforcement officers.
Your Five-Minute Eye-Tracking Study
Remember that “10-second” exercise I suggested a few paragraphs ago? Did you write down the list of what you really saw? Good. Take a few minutes to figure out why you remembered what you did. Forget about what you remembered, figure out why you remembered it. Make those whys part of your next design.