How a Sideways Glance Can Inform Website Design

At its headquarters in Bellevue, Washington, Expedia, the travel booking website, houses a product-testing lab where it explores how users experience their site. Test subjects are asked to sit down and book a hotel or flight, just as they would at home, and Expedia researchers sit on the other side of a one-way mirror. But they’re not watching the subject.

Instead, researchers and members of the product team watch a large screen that shows exactly where the test subject is looking. Eye-tracking software tracks their every eye movement, while an EMG machine tracks facial movements to assess the user’s emotions. Expedia has used the technology to assess what kind of photos, for example, entice people to book a room (bedrooms with a view!). The company also more generally uses it to detect pain points in a user’s path to purchase. 

“We get so close to a feature that we start making assumptions and think we know what the customer wants,” Alex Hopwood, Expedia’s director of product management, told The New York Times earlier this week. Experiences revealed by eye- and emotion-tracking technology are “almost like a slap in the face—in a good way.”

Expedia’s not the only company using these kinds of technologies to improve its user experience. A recent piece in Adweek explored the ways in which various companies are using biometric data to ascertain what people want from a web experience. We’ve utilized many of these user experience tools to help our clients over the years.

European retail giant ASOS, for example, used eye tracking, facial recognition, and galvanic skin response to determine issues like their checkout option being difficult to locate, or their size selector tool being confusing to navigate. They also found that test users were engaged for about 37% of their time on ASOS’s website, but only experienced joy for 8% of that time.

Until now, use of these technologies has been largely reserved for large companies, like financial institutions, insurance companies, and big e-commerce sites. That’s because, traditionally, eye-tracking headsets, hand sensors, facial analysis software and the systems needed to make sense of their output were quite expensive. But that’s changing.

“It used to be the case that to use all these sensors together, you’d have to have multiple machines pulling in and you’d have to pull all those data points out and crunch them yourself,” explained Marcus Cooke, a director of Space Between, a UK-based web design company. “Nowadays there’s more systems that will integrate with all those sensors and you can run them on a single laptop.”

Tobii, a Swedish company that makes biometric products used for these purposes, is now promoting cheaper compact versions of its products to enable smaller businesses to try the technology. They say there has been an explosion in interest in their products in the last 5 years, and the use of this kind of technology will likely grow as it becomes more accessible.

Mike Bartels, Tobii’s senior research director, put it this way: “For a lot of companies…the lightbulb has kind of gone on.”