Fixation vs. attention

Eye tracking studies are all the rage today, in part because of the increasing sophistication of the technology involved. A few years ago, eye tracking was cumbersome and annoying. Subjects had to insert clear contact lenses, with wires spiraling out of them, and struggle to interact with documentation “normally� while the test was taking place. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to behave “normally� with spiral wires hanging out of my eyes.

But recent advances in technology have allowed eye tracking systems to be priced within the reach of almost any commercial enterprise. If you are a technical communicator (or information designer, user experience developer, etc., etc.), chances are that within the next five years, eye tracking studies will become part of your regular routine.

With that in mind, it pays to be cautious. Eye tracking studies can be useful, but it’s tempting to draw conclusions that aren’t valid. One of the biggest mistakes people make is confusing fixation and attention. Just because your studies reveal that a subject’s eyes are drawn to a specific spot on the page, it doesn’t mean that the person is actually processing (or will retain) what he is looking at!

The human eye can take in quite a bit of different information at once. However, the brain can only process one “visual scene� at a time. Don’t believe me? Consider the following example.

Below is a link to a movie. Don’t open it yet. The movie shows six people passing basketballs around. One group of three is wearing black, the other group of three is wearing white. When you watch the movie, your instructions are to count the number of chest passes and bounce passes that the WHITE team makes. Do nothing else. If you see four chest passes and two bounce passes, then your answer would be “4� and “2.�

Got it? When you’re comfortable with the instructions above, click the link below and watch the movie. Then return here and click Read the Rest of this Entry to determine what your results mean.

Watch Movie(7mb movie, wait for it to load and click Play)

So… how many passes did you count?

Four and two?

Seven and six?

…did you see the gorilla?

Yes, I’m serious. Play it again.

What?!? You mean I missed a gorilla? Yep. But that doesn’t make sense. I was looking right at him. How could I miss him?

Even though you were fixated on the area where he was walking, you were not paying attention to him. Again, your eyes took in the information, but your brain discarded it because it was busy on another task.

How does this relate to eye tracking? It’s too easy to take results and make inappropriate conclusions. Just because someone’s eyes are fixated on an area of interest (AOI), it doesn’t mean that he is actually processing what is being seen.

For instance, imagine you are developing an e-commerce site. You may be encouraged when your results show that eyes are stopping right where you want them to, on a specific “Sale!� graphic. But what if there’s an annoying Flash banner blinking red and yellow right beside that AOI? Do you really think that your audience is able to give its full attention to your graphic? People are being conditioned to avoid looking at advertising banners, but we all still notice when they are there.

Anything that interferes with your visual scene can affect the attention of your audience. Here are the most common places where visual scenes can go wrong:

  • Screen architecture – Is your document well-designed? Does it draw the eye appropriately (left-to-right, top-to-bottom for western audiences, vice-versa for some eastern cultures)?
  • Advertising – Appropriate? Annoying? Does it reduce the credibility of your site (e.g., airline advertisement right beside a news article about an airplane crash)?
  • Environment – Is your site designed for your primary audience’s personal environment (e.g., does it rely on or use sound if your audience is not likely to have speakers turned on)? How would you change your screen design if you discovered your primary audience was accessing your site from a PDA?
  • Colors/Typography – Do your colors complement each other? Are you using colors that individuals with visual impairments might have problems seeing? Are you forcing your audience to navigate using specific colors (usually a no-no)? Are you using obscure fonts, or fonts that don’t match your subject matter?
  • Inconsistency – Is everything consistent from page to page? Is the shopping cart icon, the search box, the Home button, etc., always in the same place?

These are just a few of the things to keep in mind when designing screens. Remember, it does no good if your design draws the eye perfectly, but fails when it comes to communicating your message. Reduced attention on AOIs can lead to poor information retention at best, and frustrated annoyance at worst.

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