Eye tracking…Why the fuss?

Lynette Goh
Jan 11, 2016 · 4 min read

Eye tracking can be controversial. Is it really a useful tool or just a fad that will pass? Is it really worth the investment for your business?

This all began in 1879, with a Parisian man named Louis Émile Javal. The initial assumption of how people read was through a smooth sweeping of the eyes along the text, but Javel observed that the eye movement during reading was actually a series of short stops (called fixations) and quick saccades (movement from one fixation to the next fixation). Eye tracking research grew since then, and much is known about how people read or pay attention with their eyes.

Advances in technology quickly allowed eye tracking to be easier and faster. In the past, people’s heads had to be secured on a mounted device in order to be eye tracked and there was a long calibration process. With better camera technology and algorithms, eye tracking equipment is now much more compact and mobile. Compared to 10 years ago, eye tracking equipment is becoming more cost-effective with every new device that gets to market. Already there are many innovation and research labs around the world that has bought at least one eye tracking device to assist them in their research methods.

So other than the affordable prices, why the fuss over eye tracking?

Eye tracking data negates assumptions of what this important human sensory organ (the eyes) actually visually takes in. The sense of sight allows us to perceive and interpret what is happening around us and assist us in our daily lives, from communication skills to health.

As the eye moves faster than how and what a person self-reports, as a research tool, eye tracking allows us to observe what the eye sees without conscious filtering. This therefore aids in understanding the unconscious information processes of various applications (e.g. language learning, social behaviors, motor behaviors, etc.).

Other than the use of eye tracking for academic research studies, many commercial companies are using eye tracking as a tool to gain insights into their customers’ behaviors.

Eye tracking data visualizations (e.g. heat maps, gaze plots) provides a powerful communication message to stakeholders. Very often stakeholders can be hard to convince. Heat maps and gaze plots are very useful visualizations that augments a research report. Describing your findings becomes easier and more obvious for the stakeholders to take in. If you’d like to know more about heat maps and other eye tracking data visualizations, stay tuned for further posts in ‘The Eye Insight’.

With any technology, there are limitations. Other than eye tracking equipment being expensive, some other issues limit its usage. Some people’s eyes cannot be tracked, especially those with eye diseases like cataracts. So during the screening for recruiting participants, it becomes important to assess their eyes to avoid facing tracking problems during the testing.

Eye tracking technology is also susceptible to technical problems, on both the software required to gather the data and the eye tracker hardware itself. Someone has to be on standby to troubleshoot when issues arise. To prevent this, it is always good to be knowledgeable about the equipment and the Internet has some great resources for eye tracking tips (check out Tim Holmes’ posts).

Despite these limitations, with proper training and effective planning, eye tracking can be a powerful research tool to aid your research in any domain from usability testings to neuroscience.

How to start?

For those who have no previous experience with eye tracking whatsoever, how then do you start using and understanding eye tracking?

There are a few options out there for you. The ideal scenario is to buy an eye tracking device and use it frequently to gain practical experience. However, if that is too costly for a first experience, you can also rent the eye tracking device from companies that deal with eye tracking directly (e.g. Objective Experience, Asia-Pacific region) to try it out. These companies do also conduct eye tracking training and provides support for your research.

Another option is to personally observe an actual study by getting experienced research consultants to design and conduct an eye tracking study for your own research projects. This way, you get to know exactly how eye tracking can be applied directly onto your projects and gather learning points of eye tracking.

Do you also use eye tracking for your work or are you just starting with this interesting research tool? Share some of your experiences here with me.

The Eye Insight

Tips, updates, and stories about Eye Tracking as a tool for human behavior research.

Lynette Goh

Written by

UX researcher. Tobii eye tracker user. Learner of the human psyche. Spoken word poet. Tea enthusiast.

The Eye Insight

Tips, updates, and stories about Eye Tracking as a tool for human behavior research.