The eyes have it


Left to right: Graduate student Sneha Pochinapeddi and professors Hong Sheng and Nick Lockwood with a gaze plot depicting eye-tracking data on a website. Photo by B.A. Rupert

Eyes may be the “windows to the soul,” as the adage states. But Missouri S&T researchers are finding that how the eye moves around a website — and how long it lingers on a particular section — can also reveal a lot about the importance of web design as a means of holding attention.

Using an infrared camera and eye-tracking software, Hong Sheng and Nick Lockwood, both assistant professors of business and information technology at S&T, are looking into the eyes of Internet users to find out what they look for first on a website and how long their eyes may linger there. Their research could help creators of websites — from education to e-commerce — make the experience of using the web more satisfying. It could also mean more revenue for the companies and institutions behind those websites.

In their research, Sheng and Lockwood track how users’ eyes move around a website to perform different tasks, whether scanning a site or searching for specific information. They then plot that data on screenshots of the sites to illustrate how a user’s gaze moves around the screen.

In one recent study, Sheng and Lockwood used eye-tracking technology to help them understand how delays of website load time could affect shoppers. They set up a mock online bookstore and had participants to search for a particular book title. The subjects of this study all experienced a deliberate 10-second delay while searching for the book. Some subject saw “feedback” images on the site — static pictures, moving dots or progress bars — while others did not.

The users who saw the feedback images while waiting on the website to load “had more positive attitudes toward the delay and, ultimately, the website as a whole,” they wrote. One reason had to do with the ability to fix their eyes on the feedback. Those without feedback would “scan a page in search of signals that the system is processing their request.”

Sheng and Lockwood presented their findings in December 2011 at the Tenth Annual Workshop on Human-Computer Interaction Research in Shanghai, China.

Citing earlier research, the S&T researchers noted that delays can cause more than one-third of users to give up on an online purchase.

In another study, titled “Eyes Don’t Lie,” Sheng and Sirjana Dahal, who earned a graduate degree from Missouri S&T last December, determined that it takes users about 2.6 seconds to fix their gaze on a particular area of a website. Once they focus, however, they form their first impression of that website in a flash — less than two-tenths of a second.

“We know first impressions are very important,” says Sheng. “As more people use the Internet to search for information, a user’s first impressions of a website can determine whether that user forms a favorable or unfavorable view of that organization.”

Sheng and Lockwood conduct their research in S&T’s Laboratory for Information Technology Evaluation.

By Andrew Careaga

More Missouri S&T research.


  1. Nice job! Looking forward to hearing more about the research.