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The Pros & Cons of Eye Tracking Technologies

At one time, “eye tracking” sounded like something dreamed up, right out of a science fiction novel. Well, it’s science fiction no longer. Eye tracking technologies measure eye positioning and eye movement. The technology is prevalent today in 3D televisions, select PCs and software, even user testing software.  Eye tracking does, undoubtedly, carry a “cool” factor. However, can it really be an effective tool for testing websites with users?

The short answer is: Yes, and No.

The truth is, we have seen mixed results with eye tracking in our user experience facility here in Atlanta.  Eye tracking technologies do seem to provide some pretty good data around advertising or visual design to understand what attracts the eye. However, here at User Insight, we have not yet seen a correlation between what attracts the eye and what seemingly stays in the mind of the user. While that banner ad on a site may be flashy and attract the eye, will the user understand and retain what it was they saw and be able to recount it 5 minutes later? Without probing the user, it’s impossible to say.

What’s more, I don’t see how eye tracking technology can possibly be used for usability purposes. I say this because the technology does not provide the ability to evaluate navigation through a website, user recovery from errors, issues with taxonomy or nomenclature or any other traditional measures of good usability. Usability testing is not just the acquisition of data, it’s understanding what that data means – it’s a blend of both science and art.  The art of qualitative research is in the interpretation of the data and how it applies to a good user experience. Such interpretation absolutely cannot be obtained via eye tracking technologies alone.

Eye tracking is one tool in the UXers toolbox. A replacement for true usability testing? No way.

What are your thoughts? Have you used eye tracking technologies for your usability tests? Was it useful to you in your research endeavor?