“A (very earnest-looking) mouse” Image credit: Michiel de Wit

Eye-Tracking on the Cheap

A Dead-Simple Way to Follow Your Test Participants

2 minute read

In the absence of eye-tracking equipment, ask test participants to use their mouse cursor to indicate where they’re looking on the screen.

One of the hallmarks of usability testing protocols is [the “Think Aloud” method][1]: Asking participants to verbalize their thoughts as they work through the tasks and activities of the test. This method allows the test team to get inside the head of the participant a bit and often illuminates behaviors or attitudes that wouldn’t be apparent by observation alone. It’s a great tool that we employ in all of our testing.

Faux Eye-Tracking

Another thing we ask users to do (when testing on a computer screen) is use their mouse cursor as an indicator of where they’re looking while going through the test. We record each session, and having these visual cues really helps to illuminate what the participant is seeing — and missing — in an interface.

Nothing is more revealing than seeing a participant’s mouse pass right over the element you’re hoping they’ll click. How are they missing it? It should be so obvious! How can we redesign to get them seeing (or doing) what we want them to?

The mouse acts as a stand-in for high-dig eye tracking equipment and it costs nothing.

Letting the mouse follow the participant's eye reveals a lot about what they're seeing — and not seeing.


While this method is handy (and affordable), it isn’t foolproof.

The most obvious drawback from this method is that you miss out on all the quantitative data that formal eye-tracking studies provide. No fancy heat maps or data tables with the mouse cursor technique.

Another thing: Participants will often forget to do this as the study progresses, so continual prompting is usually necessary and can get a little awkward. Just like continuously asking a silent participant, “What are you thinking?”, you’ll need to remind the idle mouser to get back to it by asking, “What are you looking at right now?”

Furthermore, while we’ve had good success with this method, I’m not sure of the implications on the outcomes of our tests because of this activity. Mouse tracking is not a normal behavior for everyone, and asking the participant to do something they don’t normally do while using a computer may have some subtle impact on their success or failure.

Then again, asking someone to verbalize their thoughts isn’t exactly natural either, so maybe it’s a non-issue. I don’t really know.

Give It A Shot

Even with these minor potential drawbacks, we’ve seen good results from using the mouse as an eye-tracking surrogate. I encourage you to try this technique next time you run a usability study and [let me know how it goes][2].

Until next time…

[1]: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/thinking-aloud-the-1-usability-tool/ “The “Think Aloud” protocol, as described by Jakob Nielsen” [2]: mailto:drew@drwtod.com “Drop me a line!”

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Originally published September 17, 2016
File under: ux  research  usability  techniques