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FEBRUARY 25, 2010   

The eyes have it

Hat-mounted eye-tracking deviceWeb usability, and usability testing in general, is a broad and complex field. But it's the cool toys that attract your attention, like this baseball cap-mounted eye tracking device.

A person wearing one of these bad boys is like a cyborg in a science-fiction movie. A tiny camera broadcasts a view of what they're seeing, overlaid with colored dot that show exactly where their eyes focus. Pretty neat.

Wearing a hat like this would make you the coolest nerd in junior high, that's for sure. Not sure about the name they gave it: the iView X HED.

Cathy Zapata in eye-tracking hatThe hat and a whole office suite outfitted with computers, cameras and speakers for user-testing was where NEOUPA, the North East Ohio Usability Professionals Association, held their meeting tonight. The toys and offices belong to Metrics Marketing Group, a company that measures the results of all sorts of products and marketing efforts.

Cathy Zapata, President of NEOUPA, shows off the cap as part of the tour of the Usability lab that preceded the meeting. This idea of usability testing, a focused look at how people respond to websites, print material, etc. really can be a game-changer for design and designers.

In the past we might have asked people what they noticed or remembered about a particular design. Lots of problems with this approach: people might not remember, they might lie to make you feel better (or worse) or they just may not be aware enough of what they're doing to describe it accurately.

Eye-tracking videos, on the other hand, give you an immediate, unmistakable view of what a person looked at and for how long.

The demo you see here is from the cap-mounted system. Similar videos can be made with equipment that tracks a person's gaze and mouseclicks on a computer web page. Another camera simultaneously captures their facial expressions, sometimes a great indicator of their frustration or enthusiam.

Combine the results from a group of people and you can create a "heat map" where varying color indicates the most and least popular areas of a webpage. This can reveal interesting things about how people read a webpage, for example.

We'll be talking more about usability next month in the Web Work / Web Wisdom series that I've been putting together at Tri-C Western Campus. Stay tuned for updates.

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