Using Eye Tracking as a Tool to Teach Informatics Students the Importance of User Centered Design

Using Eye Tracking as a Tool to Teach Informatics Students the Importance of User Centered Design

Helene Gelderblom (Deptartment of Informatics, University of Pretoria, South Africa), Funmi Adebesin (Deptartment of Informatics, University of Pretoria, South Africa), Jacques Brosens (Deptartment of Informatics, University of Pretoria, South Africa) and Rendani Kruger (Deptartment of Informatics, University of Pretoria, South Africa)
DOI: 10.4018/IJICTE.2017100109
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In this article the authors describe how they incorporate eye tracking in a human-computer interaction (HCI) course that forms part of a postgraduate Informatics degree. The focus is on an eye tracking assignment that involves student groups performing usability evaluation studies for real world clients. Over the past three years the authors have observed how this experience positively affected students' attitude towards usability and user experience (UX) evaluation. They therefore believe that eye tracking is a powerful tool to convince students of the importance of user centered design. To investigate the soundness of their informal observations, the authors conducted a survey amongst 2016 HCI students and analysed student course evaluation results from 2014 to 2016. The findings confirm that students regard the eye tracking assignment as a mind altering experience and that it is potentially an effective tool for convincing future IT professionals of the importance of usability, UX and user centered design.
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Human-computer interaction (HCI) concepts such as usability and user experience (UX) have become an accepted part of information technology (IT) systems design. Including these concepts in information systems development methodologies is regarded as beneficial to the perceived usefulness, ease-of-use, and quality of software solutions (Karat, 2005; Shneiderman, Plaisant, Cohen, Jacobs, Elmqvist & Diakopoulos, 2016) and may consequently lead to improved user satisfaction, user adoption and loyalty (Van der Heijden, 2004; Weinschenk, 2005).

In line with reports from Europe (e.g. Cajander, Eriksson & Gulliksen, 2010 and Ardito, Buono, Caivano, Costabile, & Lanzilotti, 2014), South African organisations have been slow in their adoption of usability and UX design and evaluation as a crucial aspect of the software development process (Pretorius, Hobbs & Fenn, 2015). Although HCI is taught at most tertiary institutions in South Africa and hence the IT professionals produced by these institutions should have knowledge of HCI techniques and principles, there still seems to be a shortage of these skills. The question arises why the students who are taught HCI and subsequently fulfil roles of business analysts and IT project managers do not enforce HCI principles in the design and development of their IT products (Beukes, Gelderblom & Van der Merwe, 2016; Pretorius, et al., 2015).

A possible reason could be that the way they were taught about these aspects did not make a large enough impression on them to consolidate the principles in their mental knowledge base on systems design. To learn about and be assessed on usability, UX and interaction design principles from a primarily theoretical perspective and through traditional lecture based teaching practices may not be the best approach for students to internalise this knowledge. An alternative approach would be experiential learning (Kolb & Kolb, 2005). When students experience first-hand how users struggle, how different users approach the same interface differently and how their own biases come into play, they will really appreciate the value of proper user evaluation.

Incorporating real user evaluation experience into an HCI course is challenging. Some of the difficulties we have had to deal with are:

  • User evaluation requires specialised skills in observation, data recording and data analysis which are acquired over time and through practice.

  • Translating the results of the evaluation into design recommendations is a skill acquired through experience.

  • Assessment of student performance is time consuming, since they have to be observed while doing the evaluations.

To address these problems we designed an extensive UX and usability evaluation assignment that postgraduate Informatics students do by performing eye tracking experiments over a period of four weeks. Eye tracking provides a structured way of collecting user data (Poole & Ball, 2006) and with the correct eye tracking software to do data analysis, students can do this with a limited amount of instruction. The study that we report on in this article set out to establish whether our aim with this assignment – to convey to students the importance of UX and usability in IT systems design – has been fulfilled, especially from the point of view of the students. The specific question we address is: How does incorporating practical eye tracking experience into the Honours Informatics HCI curriculum impact students’ perception of HCI concepts such as usability evaluation and user centered design?

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