February 16, 2012, 9:26 AM

IRWD 2012: Tracking eyes to build better e-commerce sites

Conference speakers explain the pros and cons of eye-tracking technology.

Lead Photo

Jim Hudson

Subtle changes in site design can push shoppers’ eyes toward important information that retailers want consumers to see, Jim Hudson, PayPal’s global manager for customer experience and design, said Wednesday at the Internet Retailer Web Design and Usability Conference 2012 in Orlando, FL.

He was speaking with Michael Summers, principal at Summers Consulting, during a session entitled “Eye spy: Can eye tracking improve your site design?” The session offered attendees an overview of the uses and costs of eye tracking—that is, technology that shows how consumers view the various elements on web sites.

Summers, a former vice president at GSI Commerce who conducts site usability testing, said following the path of consumers’ eyes can be more valuable than having them talk about what they’re seeing as they move around a site. “Users are liars,” he said, explaining that consumers either don’t always tell the full story about why they looked at certain elements, or are not able to give a wholly accurate account.

Summers used examples to show how eye tracking can aid e-retailers. For instance, when it comes to zooming tools that offer close-ups of products, he showed how testing can reveal that consumers are more focused on the site zoom buttons than the actual product close-ups that come into focus.

Hudson, meanwhile, gave examples of how information can be located on what one might assume is a prominent place on a web site but still escape the notice of consumers. He showed an example of the e- site of online discount retailer Buy.com with the PayPal button placed outside a box that included a summary of the items in the shopping cart. “Customers would say PayPal wasn’t there,” he said. Putting that button inside a box makes it easier for consumers to pick up.

He also showed how altering the images of people on a site can lead to more consumers noticing important information, such as text explaining how PayPal works. An image of older consumers looking away from that text proved less successful, via eye tracking studies, than images of a young woman looking through a telescope pointed at the information or of a man’s face and eyes tilted toward the text. “Consumers’ attention follows the faces of people on the site,” Hudson says.

Retailers hoping to learn more about their consumers and the power of their site designs might find eye tracking an expensive proposition, Summers said. He estimated that eye tracking could cost nearly $50,000 for a retailer that buys the equipment, software and maintenance; training employees to use the technology also adds to the bill. Renting the needed technology could cost about $4,000 to $5,000 per month, Hudson added. “If you have only a couple of eye-tracking questions,” he advised, “bring in a vendor.”

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