Eye Tracking the User Experience: A Practical Guide to Research

Eye Tracking the User Experience by Aga Bojko

Measuring where the eyes are directed is a powerful tool for academics and UX practitioners alike. The advanced state of technology means that eye tracking data can be collected from desktop screens, mobile devices and real-life activities. Watching playback of eye data can make a researcher feel like they’re stepping into the mind of a user; the decisions they make, the things they like or find frustrating. The data can be presented using a plot of the path the eyes travelled (a scan-path) or ‘heatmaps’ of areas most fixated. The former are more popular in academic research but the latter are really useful for getting a quick intuitive feel for how users pay attention to something (plus they look nice). But the instant appeal of eye data disguises more complex issues concerning eye position and user experience. As an academic researcher trained in eye-tracking I’ve sometimes felt frustrated that these can be glossed over in industry research (I’ve talked about some of the issues here).  So it was therefore refreshing to come across Aga Bojko’s book ‘Eye Tracking the User Experience’.

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The appeal of the book for me is probably helped by the fact that Aga Bojko began as an academic researcher on topics that required tightly controlled experimental set-ups and analysis to mille-second precision (pro and anti-saccades if you’re curious). Such rigours can be tiresome but they do instil an approach to research that leaves little room for ambiguity in data. The ‘About the Author’ section describes Bojko’s abandonment from academia to the UX industry to study ‘real-world topics that actually mattered’. Academia’s loss is the industry’s gain. And from this journey comes an intelligent and useful book.

The book contains everything you would expect from a practical guide to conducting eye tracking studies, from choosing the right device, designing studies, setting up a laboratory and analysing and presenting data. This is clear and accessible.

But what really appeals to me is a theme that runs throughout the book: Eye-tracking will not always be the appropriate method. The reader is urged to be discerning about applying eye-tracking to their UX research.  Clear examples are provided of the sorts of UX issues that can be resolved with eye-tracking data. Eye-tracking is a comparatively expensive and time-consuming methodology, so unless the data can be used to answer particular design objectives, then it often won’t be the appropriate method.

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Related to this is the need for triangulation of eye tracking data against other methods. Looking at the position of eyes alone won’t reveal anything about a research participants’ emotional state, so therefore running eye-tracking alongside other measures is always the approach I use in my research. This message is clear in the book, and Bojko usefully details other methods such as retrospective verbal protocol (or retrospective think-aloud as some refer to it) that can be used in combination.

Bojko also demonstrates useful insights into the role of research within corporate structures. After persuasively arguing when eye-tracking should and should not be used from a methods perspective, she presents a caveat: eye-tracking can also be useful for getting ‘buy-in’  for a usability project. Because of the high-spec technology and the intuitive appeal of the data, eye tracking piques the interest of stakeholders and can raise the profile of the project. It would be easy to write an instructional guide to eye-tracking, and others exist. However, this book is refreshing in being candid about the real uses and limits of eye-tracking. It is written by someone with both rigorous research training and a wealth of industry experience. This is the best book I’ve read on the topic and is a must-read for UX researchers with an interest in adding eye-tracking to their arsenal of methods.

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adam_galpinDr. Adam Galpin is a lecturer, researcher and consultant in Media Psychology, and runs the UK’s first MSc in Media Psychology at the University of Salford.

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