Where’s Wally…? I used to spend ages looking for him, didn’t you too?
It would start as a fun game: Sure, I’ll find him in no time, it can’t be that hard! But after searching for a while, it could get pretty frustrating: You KNEW he was there, somewhere on that jam-packed beach. You even knew what he looked like, with his trademark red-striped shirt, hat and his nerdy glasses. Still, it would sometimes take ages and make your eyes burn to finally single him out.
Today I don’t play ‘Where’s Wally’ anymore. But every so often I play: Where’s the login?, Where’s the email address? or Where’s the link to that page I’m looking for? And just as back in the Wally-days, it can get frustrating.
There are a number of reasons why looking for something online can get cumbersome: things get buried in complicated menus, labels and information can be incomprehensible or you simply may not know where to start looking. User observation helps us understand where these issues lie. In user testing we see people making faces, clicking on the wrong button, getting lost in menus and missing information – and we learn a lot from that.
And every now and then you might hear us say: “On that page participants didn’t see the submit button.”
… or did they?
How do we know whether users missed a button or a link? How do we know they ignored it, or chose not to use it, because they didn’t know what it would do?
The answer is: we don’t. We can often tell that something is not working, but we can’t always tell why.
This is where eye tracking comes in handy. By adding an eye tracking monitor to our user testing set-up, we get little red dots and lines dashing over the screen, indicating what the participant is looking at. Fancy!
If I am looking at a Wally picture on the monitor, my observers can follow my gaze as I go hunting for him. And after I find him, they can analyse my eye tracking data to reveal which paths I use to track him down and in which sequence. They can also see which faces and objects in the crowd catch my attention and where I centre my search. Then, after watching more people look for Wally in the same picture, usage patterns emerge.
These usage patterns can tell you a lot about the state of your page design. Here are the visual paths of two users looking at the xero.co.nz homepage. Each dot on this screen represents a step on the visual journey across the page:
The user’s gaze moves systematically from element to element: Both users start their exploration on the logo and the key message, then their attention is drawn to the key visual on the right. Ultimately each user looks at the elements below, supposedly looking for keywords of personal relevance. We can see that the design serves as a tour guide of the page, leading the users gaze to see all important elements in a desired order within less than 25 seconds.
Compare this image to the gaze plot of two users on telstraclear.co.nz:
The plot is less systematic. Users start looking at the central picture also, but then their gaze scatters, moving back and forth between various elements – not all of the elements observed are of initial importance (e.g. News). The attention is then centred on a banner at the bottom: ‘If you are having trouble getting through to us on the phone…’. In 28 seconds, the main navigation (purple box on the left) is hardly noticed at all.
This is where a website can turn into a Wally-scenario: Instead of quickly getting an overview of what Telstra Clear offers, users have to dig through a pile of visual white noise. A typical problem: Too much, too soon!
So, eye tracking can tell interesting and sometimes surprising stories about your users’ unconscious interaction with a website. However, the real strength lies in combining these stories with others: the user’s verbal and non-verbal responses, including comments, body language and facial expressions. That way we learn to first understand what people see when they use an interface, and then we find out what they feel about an entire experience.
Eye tracking is therefore more than just the icing on the cake – it is the foundation of a comprehensive understanding of the users’ experience.