Behind the seemingly blank gaze of every web user staring at a screen lies a wealth of data. Subtle cues—a change in palm sweat levels, a flicker of facial expression, a fleeting sideways glance—can reveal more about what what people want from a web experience than they themselves can fully articulate.
Or at least that’s the bet consumer-facing brands are increasingly making with the growth of a new set of biometric technologies meant to better quantify the process of building an online user experience. Companies are using focus groups with tools and techniques previously reserved for scientific research like eye-tracking headsets, hand sensors and facial analysis to design and debug ecommerce sites, banking interfaces and other online platforms.
“Certainly in the last five years, there’s been an explosion of interest in like, ‘How can we get a little deeper in the user experience than just knowing what they click on and how often they scroll and which links they go to?'” said Mike Bartels, senior research director at Tobii, a Swedish hardware firm that makes biometric products for these and other purposes. “For a lot of companies that we work with, the lightbulb has kind of gone on.”
Combinations of these tools are able to uncover an average of 40 percent more user issues and pain points than a self-reported focus group session for U.K.-based web design shop Space Between, according to agency director Marcus Cooke. But the technology as it exists now is not for everyone; Cooke said he tends to only recommend the pricier process for bigger clients like large ecommerce sites ASOS and Joules, financial institutions and insurance companies.
“These are the people who have the right motivation to spend the money to make sure purchase journeys are as easy as possible—because obviously when you’re buying life insurance, it’s a stressful situation; it’s not like buying a T-shirt,” Cooke said. “There might be three steps to buying a T-shirt. For insurance, at minimum, it will take you like eight steps. There’s more room for us there.”
In one case study, Space Between used five biometrics tools—galvanic skin response (GSR), eye tracking, facial recognition, screen recording and heart-rate monitoring—to evaluate and compare three different designer fashion sites. From that data, the agency was able to pull various conclusions about which elements of the page worked best for users and how others might be improved.
Eye tracking showed that people had trouble finding the checkout option on ASOS’ page, for instance, and facial-recognition sensors picked up confusion at a size selector tool. Overall, the agency found through a combination of facial analysis, GSR and eye tracking that test consumers were engaged for about 37 percent of their time on ASOS’ site and experienced “joy” for around 8 percent. ASOS declined an interview on how this research was incorporated.
In-depth findings like these are only possible because of the decreasing prices and increasing efficiency of sensor equipment and the artificial intelligence-based programs that handle the data they create, according to Cooke.
“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,” Cooke said. “Nowadays there’s more systems that will integrate with all those sensors and you can run them all on a single laptop.”
Companies like Tobii have been trying to expand the customer base for these products even further with cheaper, more compact versions of its products that smaller businesses can afford, such as the Tobii Pro Sprint web app it released last fall. Eventually, these more quantifiable tests might be integrated with AI-powered web design tools that auto-generate site elements to make for a fully automated web design process.
Liang Hiah, UX lead at Swedish retail chain and Tobii client H&M, said in a previous interview that eye-tracking tools in particular make site design decisions a more objective, data-backed choice.
“Sharing the objective insights in session recordings allows us to quickly convince team members and stakeholders of needed design decisions that have previously been challenging to prove,” Hiah said.