Eye tracking in UX

What is Eye Tracking in UX?

by Mads Soegaard | | 27 min read

Eye tracking technology measures and analyzes eye movements to reveal what captures visual attention. Understanding this can enhance user interfaces and product designs. Let's explore how eye tracking works, the steps to conduct it, and its limitations. 

What is Eye Tracking, and How Does it Work? 

Eye tracking technology observes and records where and how our eyes move. It uses sensors and cameras. These tools detect the eyes' position and movement. The system shines infrared light on the eyes. This light creates reflections on the cornea and pupil. 

Eye-tracking devices capture these reflections. Then, algorithms analyze this data. They figure out where the person is looking. The point of gaze shows where a person focuses on a screen or in the environment. This technology helps us understand how people see and process information.  

Other methods, like interviews and surveys, rely on how well participants remember and describe their thoughts. But these can be subjective.  

Studies in cognitive science show that what people think they do can differ from their actual thoughts and actions. Eye tracking offers a clearer, more direct way to see these cognitive processes and intentions. It is useful in many fields. It generates data in the form of heat maps and saccade pathways: 

  • Heat Maps: Heat maps show where visitors looked and for how long. They use colors to indicate the duration of the gaze. Typically, colors shift from blue to red. Red areas on a page suggest that a participant or a group focused there for a longer time. 

  • Saccade Pathways: Saccade pathways map the eye's movements across different focus points. These pathways are displayed as lines on the screen. A red circle marks an area of focus, and a red line shows the eye's path moving from one focus point to another. 

Psychologists, marketers, and tech designers use eye tracking. They learn how we interact with the world around us. Eye tracking is a key tool in research and development. It offers valuable insights into our visual attention and cognitive processes. 

The Benefits of Eye Tracking in UX Research 

Eye tracking in UX research offers unique insights into user behavior. It reveals how users interact with designs to guide improvements for a better user experience. Here’s a look into its key benefits:

Top benefits of eye-tracking in UX Research (described below) 

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

1. Understand User Attention

Eye tracking in UX research uncovers where users focus their attention. This tool shows what catches their eye on a website or app. It identifies elements that draw attention and those that users overlook. This knowledge helps UX designers create more engaging and effective designs. They can place important information where users naturally look. 

2. Improve Usability

Eye tracking provides feedback on usability. It highlights areas where users struggle. For instance, if users frequently miss a call-to-action button, designers understand they must make it more prominent. This immediate feedback helps in refining user interfaces. It ensures users find what they need quickly and easily. 

3. Enhance User Engagement

Eye tracking measures how long and often users engage with specific elements. This data helps in understanding what keeps users interested. Designers can then replicate these engaging elements throughout the design. This increases overall user engagement with the product. 

4. Optimize Layout and Design

Through eye tracking, designers see how users navigate a page. They learn which layouts are most effective. This insight helps designers optimize visual hierarchy in a natural flow for the user. Optimizing the layout improves the overall aesthetic and functional appeal of the product. 

Layout sets the foundation for effective visual communication. If you want to learn about layouts, then the red square method will help. Watch this video where Michal Malewicz, Creative Director and CEO of Hype4, explains the red square method in detail.  

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5. Validate Design Decisions

Eye tracking provides empirical evidence to support design choices. It helps to validate what works and what doesn’t in a design. This removes guesswork and personal biases from the design process. Decisions become data-driven. This leads to more successful designs. 

6. Detect User Frustrations

Eye tracking can reveal when users feel frustrated. Rapid eye movements or a fixed gaze can indicate confusion or annoyance. Understanding these pain points can help designers fix the areas for improvement. Designers can then address these issues to improve the overall user experience

7. Personalize User Experience

Eye tracking data can inform personalized experiences. By understanding individual user behaviors, designers can tailor experiences. Personalization makes the user feel understood and valued. It enhances their interaction with the product. 

8. Facilitate Learning and Improvement

Eye tracking in UX research is a learning tool. Designers and researchers learn about user behavior. They understand visual perception and cognitive processing. This knowledge continuously improves UX practices. 

9. Enhance User Satisfaction

Ultimately, eye tracking leads to designs that meet user needs more effectively. Satisfied users are more likely to return and recommend the product. This increases the product's success in the market. 

Eye tracking in UX research offers a comprehensive understanding of user behavior. It leads to designs that are intuitive, engaging, and satisfying. This technology is a powerful tool in creating user-centered designs. It ensures products meet the needs and preferences of their users. 

How to Conduct Eye Tracking Testing?

10 steps to conduct eye-tracking testing in UX research

Conducting eye-tracking testing in UX research involves a structured approach. Follow these steps for effective implementation of eye tracking. 

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

1. Select Diverse Participants

Start by choosing real users who represent your product's audience. Pick people from various backgrounds, not just one company or area. This gives you a wide range of views. Tell your clients why they must pick different types of people. It helps you get a full picture of how your product works for everyone. Also, make sure that your eye-tracking system supports participants who wear glasses. If it does not, adjust your participant selection accordingly. 

2. Limit Test Participants

Five or fewer people are enough to find most issues in your test. Adding more people might just show you the same problems. If you can, do more tests at different times. This way, you can see how well your changes work without showing them to too many users simultaneously. 

3. Prepare Equipment Thoroughly

Ensure you have your eye-tracking tools and computers ready well before your test day. Check everything and set it up early. This stops problems on the test day. Try to get there early to double-check everything. This way, you can fix any last-minute issues. 

4. Create a Comfortable Testing Environment

Make sure the place where you do your tests is calm and quiet. Tell the people you test what to expect. Let them know you're looking at the product, not judging them. Keep the number of people watching the test low. Having too many people present during testing might cause nervousness in the participants. If possible, use a viewing room with one-way mirrors and soundproofing to minimize the impact of observers. Market researchers frequently use these. 

5. Use Off-Screen Prompts

Give out printed instructions for each part of the test. This helps people remember what to do without asking for help. It keeps the test smooth and focused. 

6. Encourage Real Data Input

Ask people to use their info when they fill out forms. This makes the test more real. It also shows if there are any problems with how the form works. Tell people their information is safe and won't be shared. Ensure that participants have the required data to hand before starting a research session. 

7. Take Detailed Notes

Even if you record videos of participants using the eye-tracking system, write down everything you notice about each person you test. This includes how they act and what they say. These notes add to what you learn from the eye tracker. They help you see patterns and understand how people use your product. 

Data provides the evidence and insights to support findings and drive informed decisions. The way you collect data can impact the results you get. Watch this discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of different data-gathering methods like video, audio, and notes. 

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8. Engage in Post-Test Dialogue

Talk to people right after they finish the test. Ask them how it felt and what they thought. Be careful with how you ask questions. You want honest answers that can help you make your product better. 

9. Ensure Transparency in Reporting

Be clear and open when you tell your clients about the test results. Explain any technical terms and what the data means. Include all your notes and data. This helps others see how you did your work and trust your results. 

10. Use Realistic Goals and Scenarios

Design tests around events that really happen to participants, using a common language. Avoid leading participants by employing terms from your user interface. For example, if you are trying to assess website functionality for changing the expiration date of a credit card, don’t describe the task as “update the expiration date of your credit card.” Instead, explain to participants that they’ve received a new issue of their credit card and ask them to make any necessary changes to their payment information on the website. 

Using these steps, you can do eye-tracking tests that help. They show you how to improve your product for everyone who uses it. 

Limitations of Eye Tracking in Usability Testing

Eye tracking in usability testing offers valuable insights, but it has limitations. Let's explore these limitations to optimize eye tracking in usability studies

Limitations and constraints of eye-tracking (described below) 

Understand the limitations and constraints of eye-tracking to interpret results accurately.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

1. Users Might Not Notice Everything They Look At

Eye tracking can't always tell if users know what they see. Sometimes, users might look at a part of the screen but not notice an important feature. This means we can't be sure they notice something whenever someone looks at it. 

2. Missing Peripheral Vision

Eye tracking doesn't catch what users see on the sides of their vision. So, we can't know for sure if users missed something. The sides of our vision help us see our world, but eye tracking mostly looks at fixations and gaze points. Fixations are excellent measures of visual attention, but they don’t occur in our peripheral vision. 

3. Why Users Look at Things

We can't know why users look at certain things with eye tracking alone. It shows where and how long users look at something. But it doesn't tell us what they're thinking. We need to talk to users or give them surveys to find out why. 

4. Not for Everyone

Eye tracking doesn't work the same for all people. Things like glasses, contact lenses, small pupils, or moving eyes can make it hard to track eye movements. This means eye tracking might not work well for some users. 

How to Work with These Limitations 

Eye tracking has challenges, but it's still a big help in understanding users. We can use it better when we know what it can and can't do. Along with other ways of learning about users, eye tracking helps us make things easier and more fun for them to use. This way, we fully understand how users interact with our products. Testing with different kinds of users can help, too. Knowing these limits allows us to plan better studies and get helpful information. 

References and Where to Learn More 

Read Mariana Macedo’s insights on Eye-Tracking In Mobile UX Research 

Read the Frontiers article on the Contribution of Eye-Tracking to Study Cognitive Impairments Among Clinical Populations 

Get insights from Robert J.K. Jacob’s research on Eye Tracking in Advanced Interface Design

Read the Nielsen-Norman Group’s free report, How to Conduct Eyetracking Studies.


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Soegaard, M. (2024, March 15). What is Eye Tracking in UX?. Interaction Design Foundation - IxDF.

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