Many practitioners are divided into two opposing camps: those who are pro eye tracking, and those who are against it. The proponents seem to want to use eye tracking for every study, regardless of its objectives. The opponents, on the other hand, claim that eye tracking is just “smoke and mirrors” and does not have much value. As is generally the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Eye tracking can be a valuable addition to some UX research and ineffective, or even wasteful, in other cases. […]
When eye tracking proponents state reasons for using eye tracking, they frequently frame them as “Here is what eye tracking can tell us.” For example, “Eye tracking can tell us about users’ search strategies and decision-making processes” or “Eye tracking can determine what users find interesting.” These statements are not incorrect. However, they are vague and not very helpful to those trying to figure out when to use eye tracking in their studies.
Does it matter that you can identify a visual strategy employed by users to find the correct drug among others? Or that you can find out how interesting each area of a Web page is? While it is certainly true that some UX research (especially the more academic research) aims to explore how people interact with products and interfaces in general, as UX practitioners, we must often focus on gathering actionable information. We conduct research to inform decisions. “How can we improve this product?” or “Is this product ‘good enough’ to be launched?” are the high-level questions that our studies typically have to answer. Eye tracking can provide copious information, but most of it may never be useful for answering these kinds of practical questions.
Let’s say that furniture assembly instructions were the object of your study. Your eye tracking data revealed that participants spent 10 seconds looking at the front cover before opening the booklet and reading the instructions. If your study goal were to assess instruction comprehension, this is not a useful finding. The same information could be considered useful, however, if the goal of the study were to evaluate the effectiveness of new advertising placed on the cover.
The starting point is always the high-level study objectives. More specific research questions should be then developed to target each of these objectives. Once those are in place, the next step is to identify the appropriate methodology for the study, which could but does not have to include eye tracking. One unfortunate but common practice is to decide to conduct an eye tracking study before specifying the research questions. Don’t do it. You cannot possibly know which methods to use without knowing what the study is trying to accomplish!
Just as bad as having no objectives or clear research questions is the infamous, “We just want to know where users are looking.” Let’s settle this once and for all: This is not a good enough reason to use eye tracking. Doing eye tracking just because you want to see where people are looking is like eating donuts for breakfast, lunch, and dinner just because you can.
So rather than just focusing on what eye tracking can tell you, you should ask yourself, “Why do I need to know this?” or even better, “What type of decisions do I want to be able to make based on the study results?” These questions will help you look for actionable insight and determine techniques that can gather it.
The chart below shows an overview of the actionable insights that eye tracking can generate and the kinds of decisions it can help you make.