Eye tracking for evaluating digital tools’ perceived complexity

In their seminal work, Jacob & Karn (2003) provided valuable insights on the application of eye tracking for human-computer interaction and usability research and proposed a number of directions for future studies. One particularly interesting suggestion is this: “When users search for a tool, menu item, icon, etc. in a typical human-computer interface, they often do not have a good representation of the target. Most of the literature on visual search starts with the participant knowing the specific target. We need more basic research in visual search when the target is not known completely. A more realistic search task is looking for the tool that will help me do a specific task, having not yet seen a tool" (p. 587).This suggestion can open a new research avenue in digital humanities of applying eye tracking methodology. Coupled with other methods of inquiry, eye tracking could be useful in providing answers as to why only certain tools in digital humanities research instantaneously attract user attention (for reasons other than tool’s primary purpose) and later become adopted and used.

Users are known to form an impression of a web-based resource within 50 msec of a page’s presentation (Lindgaard, Fernandes, Dudek, & Brown, 2006). During this short time, users also make up their minds as to whether they are going to continue to use this resource. Even though this time is too short to perform a conscious critical evaluation of the resource, it is enough to understand if the resource is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ (Warwick et al., 2012). Prompt decisions regarding favoring or disliking the information resource based on perceptions of the look and feel emphasize the important role interface design plays in making impressions on the users. Interfaces that look unfamiliar or too difficult to use (i.e., too complex) create unfavorable impressions on potential users and result in their decisions to abandon the resource. This knowledge implies that digital resources, especially the novel ones, need to make a positive impression on the potential users at first sight; this knowledge also suggests that initial impression of complexity is an important factor in tool adoptability and use.

Complexity of a web resource is a difficult concept to define as it depends on several factors. Typically, complexity increases with the number of elements on the page (Harper, Michailidou, & Stevens, 2009), perceived unfamiliarity (Forsythe, Mulhern, & Sawey, 2008) and preexisting expectations and even the age of users (Donderi, 2006). While forming the impressions of complexity, users experience a range of emotions. These emotions carry both dimensions: valence (i.e., positive and negative) and arousal (i.e., resting to excited) (Goldberg, 2012). Scales and surveys or physiological methods can measure these dimensions; however, the former are not efficient in capturing the fleeting feelings and the latter suffer from validity issues (Hazlett & Benedek: 2007). A more suitable method for capturing user feelings may involve studying patterns of eye movement, blinks and pupil changes (de Lemos, Sadeghnia, Olafsdottir, & Jensen, 2008). An example of such a study is Goldberg (2012) who investigated the relationship between perceived web page complexity and emotional valence through the application of subjective ratings, facial analysis and eye tracking. He found that eye tracking and emotional valence measures were related to conscious subjective judgments of complexity thus concluding that eye tracking was a valid method for evaluating interfaces for perceived complexity.

It has also been found that there is a positive correlation between users' perceptions of visual complexity and aesthetic appearance of a web page, i.e., less complex pages were perceived as more visually appealing and vice versa (Michailidou, Harper, & Bechhofer, 2008). Studies that try to determine user perceptions of the aesthetic qualities of web-based technology emphasize visual clarity and visual richness as the two most important aesthetic dimensions (Lavie & Tractinsky, 2004). Design elements that shape these dimensions to a significant degree are text/background colour combinations (Hall & Hanna, 2004), font type and size (Bernard. Liao, & Mills, 2001) and headers, menus, search boxes and logos (Yesilada.Jay, Stevens, & Harper, 2008) .Visually pleasing interfaces have also been found to be more trustworthy (Kobins & Holmes, 2008). Djamasbi and colleagues (2010) conducted an eye tracking study where they examined how features of social presence (e.g., images of faces) contributed to visual appeal of web pages and consequently user trust. Analysis of heat maps representing the accumulation and duration of fixations helped explain that users found pages with images of faces more visually appealing, more trustworthy and more helpful in retrieving and processing the needed information over the pages with images of logos.

Findings like this indicate that aesthetics and visual appeal can be good predictors of trust, which is an important criterion in the selection of websites and digital tools and environments. However, in trying to provide aesthetic appearance of technology, it is critical to remember that visual appeal is not the only requirement for its successful use — utility and functionality are also expected (Tractinsky, 2004). In addition, the right balance between design elements that support visually pleasing interfaces should be observed in order to avoid excessive cognitive load these features may impose on the user. In situations where a wide range of digital tools and environments available to humanities researchers contributes to intense competition for retaining the interest of old older users and especially gaining the interest of new ones, it is important to pay special attention to good system design overall and especially, good design of interfaces, which act as the first point of encounter between the user and the tool. Testing the benefits as well as potential weaknesses of proposed designs by employing various methodological approaches is therefore crucial. A large set of tools and methodologies can be used to understand the nature of these encounters and eye tracking could be particularly useful.

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