Last updated Feb 26 2020

Eye-tracking: a definition

What is eye-tracking?

Eye-tracking technology helps observe and measure eye movements, pupil dilation, point of gaze, and blinking to see where subjects of a study focus their visual attention, what they engage with, and what they ignore.

Eye-tracking is used in a variety of research, for example marketing research and usability testing studies, to help researchers understand which elements of a webpage or an advertisement draw people’s attention. Armed with this information, companies can then design more usable websites and craft more effective advertising.

How does eye-tracking research work?

Eye-tracking research can be done in a few different ways. Studies can be conducted:

  • with screen-based eye-tracking devices that attach to a monitor
  • by having subjects wear eye-tracking glasses
  • by using eye tracker webcams.

The type of technology used in any particular study depends on what type of research is being done. For example, brick and mortar businesses may conduct eye-tracking market research with the use of eye-tracking glasses or headsets, so they can learn what subjects are looking at in a real-world situation. Ecommerce store owners may find it more useful to implement a screen-based tracker or webcam that will reveal what research subjects look at when browsing through a site.

As with any behavioral study, it’s important to establish which questions you want to have answered before you begin. If you’re conducting an eye-tracking study on your ecommerce site, the questions you are likely to want answered include:

Eye-tracking software is used to gather data from the study to give you the information you need. Once the results are in, you can use what you’ve learned to improve customer and user experience on your site.

Why is eye-tracking important?

Eye-tracking can provide valuable insight about visitor/customer preferences that surveys or other research methods can’t always uncover. For example, while on-site surveys can be effective at highlighting what visitors consciously focus on—and what consciously impacts them—they won’t pick up the many things that are occurring below the subject’s conscious awareness.

Our eyes follow what interests us: our pupils dilate when we’re intrigued by something or when we’re having an intense emotional response to what’s in front of us. When researchers observe these patterns across test subjects, they can better predict how the audience will react as a whole. In turn, when applied to UX and usability, this insight allows companies to create websites that are more usable and content that is more likely to attract attention and convert.

Spotting patterns in attention

Take a look at this popular meme:

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The vast majority of people will read the text in the exact order the meme predicts, while a few odd ones will deviate.

Now, if you saw an ad with text structured like this, you might not consciously remember the order in which you read the copy—but eye-tracking would pick it up and researchers would be able to spot the pattern. Once they see the same pattern play itself out over many test subjects, they can determine how most people will respond—and design their webpages accordingly.

Advantages and disadvantages of eye-tracking

Eye-tracking can tell you exactly what subjects are looking at, so there’s no need for self-reporting and guesswork. On the downside, since the tracking requires specialized equipment and takes place in a laboratory, some subjects may behave differently than they would in the real world—perhaps trying to ‘please’ the researcher or avoid looking at something they otherwise would.  Also, it can be time-consuming and expensive (and therefore cost-prohibitive) for many startups and small companies.

An affordable alternative

If you don’t have the budget for expensive eye-tracking tests, tools like Heatmaps and Session Recordings will show you where people hover their mouse pointers. 

How does that help? Some studies suggest there’s a correlation between where people hover their mouse pointers and where their eyes move. And while it’s not a perfect correlation, it can give you a good idea of where users tend to focus their attention—for a much smaller price tag than eye-tracking.

See how website visitors behave with Heatmaps and Recordings

Heatmaps show, in aggregate, where your visitors click, scroll and hover their mouse pointers. The ‘hotter’ the element, the more action it’s getting from your users.

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The above ‘move map’ is a specific type of heat map that records mouse hover positions and gives a clear indication of what captured people’s attention the most. Readers of the page clearly paused over the image more than they did anywhere else around it.

As a companion tool, you could use session recordings to watch individual sessions of anonymous users as they interact with the page itself, and see what else was happening on the page and during the journey that inspired them to stop their mouse there. 

Survey your users and get their feedback

While heatmaps and session recordings can help you understand the clicks and movements users are making on your site, on-site Feedback Polls will allow you to directly ask them about their online experience.

Feedback Polls can help you go beyond the users’ movements—they can help you understand the users’ motives:

  • Why are your visitors landing on your site?
  • Why did they drop off on a certain page?
  • Who are your visitors, and what are they looking for?
  • What is stopping your visitors from becoming customers?

When using feedback polls in combination with heatmaps and session recordings, you can gain insight into your customers’ movements, clicks, and on-site journey, as well as learning why they move around on your site the way they do.

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EXAMPLE OF AN ON-SITE FEEDBACK POLL

However you decide to study your users’ behavior, remember that your intent should be to learn which steps need to be taken to improve their overall experience on your website, with an end goal of increased conversion rates.

Ready to get inside your visitors’ heads?

Use Hotjar to figure out where your users focus their attention.

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