Please indulge me with this post. I’m inspired by the books I’m reading at the moment and on Pg 108 I realised that what I was reading was a part of the history behind eye tracking for testing websites.


The awesome book that I’m reading at the moment is The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, and in Chapter 3, The Stickiness Factor – which incidentally is about the origins of Sesame Street and the research that made it the stickiest children’s show of all time, he started talking about how they used eye movement photography to improve the effectiveness of some of the less successful visual blending (exercises that teach children that reading consists of blending together distinct sounds as well as using visual cues and letters to make it entertaining) segments within Sesame Street, that aimed to teach children how to read.


Eye movement photography was a pre-cursor to eye tracking for websites and was used in the development of Sesame Street

Sesame Street used eye movement photography to improve their ability to teach children through television.

Eye movement photography takes pictures of a persons fovea, which is a part of the iris (the black part of your eyeball), to pinpoint exactly what you are looking at at every individual moment. Apparently the human eye is capable of only focusing on a very small area at one time, when reading we are only able to take in one key word at a time. Specifically, one key word and 4 characters to the left and 15 characters to the right (very specific, I know). When we read, we jump from one chunk of characters to the next, fixating on them long enough to make sense of each letter. That’s why we move our eyes when we read.


So, the reason Sesame Street were using eye movement photography is because when you track where someone’s fovea is moving and what they are fixating on, you can tell with extraordinary precision what they are actually looking at and what kind of information they are actually receiving (pg 108 of The Tipping Point). It was at this point that I realised that this eye movement photography was the basis behind eye tracking that we online marketers use for testing websites – and that can also be used to test television commercials, and segments of shows like Sesame Street.


Online marketers and user experience and usability experts use eye tracking to monitor a website user’s eye movements while they are looking at a website on their computer screen. Generally eye tracking is used as a technique within user acceptance testing (UAT).


During a user testing session, a moderator sits with a user and asks them to look at certain things on a website and give their opinion, discuss the names or labels used for website navigation, perform certain tasks or user scenarios and rate their ease of use. While the moderator is making note of the user’s actions, opinions and perceptions, the webcam is taking images of the user’s eye movements to assess whether what they say matches up with where they were looking. Simultaneously another program will be tracking the mouse movements and clicks within the internet browser.


Most marketers and advertisers who believe in (and have the budget and time for)  thorough user testing, using qualitative research (small sample sizes of in-depth interviews with individuals or groups of people who fit the intended audience profile for the brand or product being researched) also know that what people say and what they do can often be very different. That’s why survey data (quantitative research) can’t always be believed because what people tell you their intent is, in a survey for instance, and what they think they would do, are not usually the same thing.


That’s where eye tracking and mouse movement tracking comes in, it combines qualitative research (personal interviews) with quantitative research (the data that is supplied by the mouse tracking and eye tracking). So, when the user has a bad experience or is frustrated by the task they’ve been asked to perform, but still says that they thought it worked well (because ultimately most people want to please their audience), eye tracking and mouse tracking helps us deconstruct where the problems were so that we can fix them to provide a better user experience.

Of course, it is not always that simple, but its a process and there are often small incremental changes that are made over time to continually optimise a website so that it will perform better for the brand and also meet the user’s expectations.


So, in the end, what I thought was a new technology (eye tracking) that was introduced to online marketers in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s, turns out to be a much more mature form of research methodology that started with eye movement photography. And who knows what inspired that?

I could just do a wikipedia search but its late and I kind of like thinking that I’ve already discovered the origin, and that is helped shape the amazing television show that I loved as a kid, Sesame Street.