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Where do we look and what do we look at the most on the web? There's a lot of science behind both those questions. One method that has given us a lot of answers is eye tracking.
To put it simply, eye tracking is a method for measuring where a person is looking or where the person's eye is moving in relation to their head.
Eye tracking has been in development since as far back as the late 1800s. One of the first more modern eye tracking devices was developed by Alfred Yarbus in the 1950s. His device aided him in becoming one of the early pioneers in the research of saccadic eye movement—the quick movement of our eye from one point of fixation to another. This movement describes how we process much of the visual world around us.
While eye tracking may not be able to describe why we look at certain images or designs, it can tell us what we look at and for how long. Over the years, eye tracking has been used in research fields as varied as psychology, education, and medicine. In the 1980s, market researchers discovered eye tracking as a way of studying how we read and view magazine ads. From this point on, eye tracking became a popular research method for marketing and design agencies.
In the late nineties, marketing and advertising firms began using eye tracking to discover how we viewed the World Wide Web. We have also seen usability and user experience research develop alongside the birth of the web. Eye tracking has been crucial in discovering certain UX rules of web design such as the concept that people are likely to focus on large text headlines on a web page. Basically, placing the most important information in the upper left corner of your website will lead to more people paying attention to it.
Fox News utilizes lessons learned from eye tracking by placing their main headline off-center in the upper left of the page.
Also, the concept of banner blindness was discovered by eye tracking research. Banner blindness is the idea that when we are browsing the web we ignore most banner advertisements.
Even without actually taking part in eye tracking studies, there has been a lot of valuable findings made available for web professionals through the work of others in eye tracking. Jakob Nielson and Kara Pernice put together the findings from "1.5 million instances" of users looking at websites into their book, Eye Tracking Web Usability. This book can be a valuable resource in understanding how we digest the websites we view every day. If you are looking for an introduction to completing eye tracking studies of your own: the e-book How to Conduct Eye Tracking Studies? is also a useful resource.
While eye tracking has aided researchers in discovering many of the web design rules of thumb we follow today, it is also very expensive. Tobii is one of the industry leaders in eye tracking software and hardware. They've recently developed a wide-screen eye tracking platform with all eye tracking hardware completely built-in to a 24-inch monitor. The system even compensates for head movement via algorithms.
Systems like this are expensive—often costing tens of thousands of dollars. And while these systems may be ideal for large usability labs and universities, they’re still out of reach for most agencies and developers.
Interestingly, the president of Tobii Tech, Oscar Werner has stated that, “2015 will be the year that eye-tracking makes first entry into consumer markets and consumers have their first tangible experiences with real eye-tracking products in the wild."
Mr. Werner might not be far off. If you're interested in the UX of gaming, SteelSeries Sentry has developed a technology that utilizes eye tracking capabilities specifically for enhancing video game play. Gamers can use this technology while playing their favorite games and get insights into where they look and how they interact with the game. This can be particularly interesting for gamers who stream live and want to give their viewers an exact idea of what they are looking at when they are playing.
Tobii has also developed a pair of eye tracking glasses that will aid in bringing eye tracking out of the lab. We will be able to see how people interact with the packages and advertisements in store, even what they pay attention to when just walking down the street. Another company that has developed eye tracking glasses for applications ranging from market research, augmented reality, driving UX, and sports training research is SensoMotoric Instruments.
While these technologies aren’t cheap, companies such as SteelSeries, Tobii and SMI are beginning to bring eye tracking technologies to the consumer level and out into the world. In an interview with Scientific American, vision scientist, Michael Dorr stated:
He was speaking in reference to recent eye tracking patents Google has filed for their device Google Glass. Potentially, Google Glass with integrated eye tracking could gauge information as varied as how many times a user looks at an advertisement to even measuring mental health via gaze and pupil dilation.
Consumer eye tracking in the wild with Google Glass could have multiple applications. For example, future iterations of Google Glass could allow users to get detailed information about a restaurant including phone numbers, breakfast menus and Yelp reviews just by gazing at a restaurant sign while walking down the street.
Eye tracking has come a long way since the time of Yarbus and the breakthroughs he made with his bulky machines. In many ways, the technology is starting to break out of the lab and onto the street.
What may truly revolutionize how we study the gaze of a target audience is taking eye tracking to the grocery store or the shopping mall with technology like the Tobii Glasses 2, or even Google Glass. Overall, as this technology reaches the consumer level, it will not only change the way we research the user experience but could potentially change the way we live our lives.
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