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Team Think Labs | The World of Eye Tracking
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The World of Eye Tracking



Sometimes when designing interactive media we run into snags with user interface. Its hard to pre-determine what the user will deem important and what they will skip over. There are lots of theories on what colors, shapes, layouts and type treatments will appeal to the audience but its always nice to see the data laid out in a visual form. Eye-Tracking solves this problem by keeping track of where the user looks as well as how long their eye stayed at that position. The Nielson Norman Group has been researching web users since the early 90s and they are one of the leaders in Eye-Tracking research. These are a few of the basic rules they have found when presenting users with information and keeping track of how they digest it…

Response-Time Limits

  • 0.1 seconds gives the feeling of instantaneous response — that is, the outcome feels like it was caused by the user, not the computer. This level of responsiveness is essential to support the feeling of direct manipulation (direct manipulation is one of the key GUI techniques to increase user engagement and control).
  • 1 second keeps the user’s flow of thought seamless. Users can sense a delay, and thus know the computer is generating the outcome, but they still feel in control of the overall experience and that they’re moving freely rather than waiting on the computer. This degree of responsiveness is needed for good navigation.
  • 10 seconds keeps the user’s attention. From 1–10 seconds, users definitely feel at the mercy of the computer and wish it was faster, but they can handle it. After 10 seconds, they start thinking about other things, making it harder to get their brains back on track once the computer finally does respond.

A 10-second delay will often make users leave a site immediately. And even if they stay, it’s harder for them to understand what’s going on, making it less likely that they’ll succeed in any difficult tasks.

Even a few seconds’ delay is enough to create an unpleasant user experience. Users are no longer in control, and they’re consciously annoyed by having to wait for the computer. Thus, with repeated short delays, users will give up unless they’re extremely committed to completing the task. The result? You can easily lose half your sales (to those less-committed customers) simply because your site is a few seconds too slow for each page.



People Photos = Good (If They’re Real People)

Eye tracking studies have documented a dramatic gap in how users approach website images:

  • Some types of pictures are completely ignored. This is typically the case for big feel-good images that are purely decorative.
  • Other types of pictures are treated as important content and scrutinized. Photos of products and real people (as opposed to stock photos of models) often fall into this category).

jazzy-photo-not-seen people-photos-fixations


People don’t like scrolling below the fold

During the Web’s first years, users often didn’t scroll Web pages at all. They simply looked at the visible information and used it to determine whether to stay or leave. Thus, in usability studies during that period (1994–1996), sites often failed if they placed important information below the fold as most users didn’t see it.

This reluctance to scroll made sense at the time, because people were used to having computers show all their choices. Dialog boxes, CD-ROM multimedia shows, and HyperCard stacks all worked that way, and didn’t require scrolling.

Today, users will scroll. However, you shouldn’t ignore the fold and create endless pages for two reasons:

  • Long pages continue to be problematic because of users’ limited attention span. People prefer sites that get to the point and let them get things done quickly. Besides the basic reluctance to read more words, scrolling is extra work.
  • The real estate above the fold is more valuable than stuff below the fold for attracting and keeping users’ attention.

So, yes, you can put information below the fold rather than limit yourself to bite-sized pages.

In fact, if you have a long article, it’s better to present it as one scrolling canvas than to split it across multiple pageviews. Scrolling beats paging because it’s easier for users to simply keep going down the page than it is to decide whether or not to click through for the next page of a fragmented article.

But no, the fact that users scroll doesn’t free you from prioritizing and making sure that anything truly important remains above the fold.

Information foraging theory says that people decide whether to continue along a path (including scrolling path down a page) based on the current content’s information scent. In other words, users will scroll below the fold only if the information above it makes them believe the rest of the page will be valuable.


On the left, the user scrolled very far down the page and suddenly came across an interesting item. This viewing pattern gives us many fixations that are deep below the fold. We often see this pattern for well-designed FAQs, though the best FAQs present the most frequently asked questions at the top (so that many users won’t need much scrolling).

The two other gaze plots show more common scrolling behaviors: intense viewing of the top of the page,moderate viewing of the middle, and fairly superficial viewing of the bottom.

It’s as if users arrive at a page with a certain amount of fuel in their tanks. As they “drive” down the page, they use up gas, and sooner or later they run dry. The amount of gas in the tank will vary, depending on each user’s inherent motivation and interest in each page’s specific topic. Also, the “gasoline” might evaporate or be topped up if content down the page is less or more relevant than the user expected.

In any case, user attention eventually peters out, and the further down the page users go, the less time they generally spend on each additional information unit.

If you are interested in checking out more Eye Tracking research you can check out the Nielson Nelson site at: http://www.nngroup.com/topic/eyetracking/all/