When dealing with a complicated topic, we ought to resist the temptation to accept the words and assurances of the experts uncritically, just because they know more than we do. Humans are fallible, and we are all blinded by our biases, whether we realize it or not. And that applies to experts, as well.
This was on my mind as I was lurking over at the IxDA forum, when I came across a neat discussion about eye-tracking studies. You can read it if you want, but before you do, watch and reflect on this video.
How did you do?
The purpose in bringing this up amidst a discussion about eye tracking studies was to point out that such studies show retinal focus, but not whether something the eye was focused on was comprehended on a cognitive level.
Behavior principle #1:
Just because someone sees and focuses on something, doesn’t mean he assigns to it the meaning the creators intended that person to assign to it, or draw all of the conclusions that could have possibly been drawn from it.
Just as the eye can focus on something without comprehending, though, the brain can comprehend something that the eye doesn’t focus on.
Behavior principle #2
Something a person does not focus on can still be comprehended at some level.
This partially explains why contextual ads perform 2.5 times better when shown in conjunction with display ads, even though display ads aren’t generally seen (according to eye-tracking studies).
Still, drawing parallels between video and reading comprehension as they pertain to how the eye focuses is problematic from several standpoints.
- The web pages studied through eye-tracking are typically static in time, whereas videos move.
- Watching a video also requires use of senses other than eyesight.
- In this particular case, the intent was in fact to trick the user, whereas web pages affected greatest by the inferences drawn from eye-tracking studies exist to enlighten and inform.
Watch the video again, now that you know what you’re supposed to be looking for, and you’ll pick up on all the subtle changes that were happening throughout, which you missed the first time.
As for me, I figured out pretty early that the camera angles made it impossible to tell if the trick was on the level, but I was so concerned about that — about “catching” the illusionist in the trick he said he was showing the audience — I missed all the other changes that happened.
If we assume my experience was the norm, this actually strengthens the case for the validity of the conclusions experts have been drawing from eye tracking studies.
Behavior principle #3
When looking for something specific, people typically stop looking and thinking about anything else once they feel they have found what they’re looking for.
Eye-tracking studies also tell us a lot about general user reading behavior on websites, which can be confirmed through usability studies. However, usability studies can be conducted less expensively, which relegates eye-tracking studies to the realm of academic and professional (nonpaying) research.
Since we would usually use the less expensive methods, we must rely on the words of the experts like Jakob Nielsen, who make it their business to conduct these and other studies and interpret the results.
Unfortunately, doing so uncritically also puts us at their mercy, which is why we should look at all studies performed, even by “experts,” with a healthy degree of skepticism. – Cam Beck
Hat tip to Mike Bennett for the video link.