I am a starer. It doesn’t help that my eyes are on the large side. Yesterday, sitting in the airport, I was struck by how many people assumed I was looking at them, when instead I was just staring out into space. So, I have a natural bias to question eye-tracking studies. But, there is a real difference between the ways that your face (and your eyes) react when in open-ended learning situations and in information seeking moments.
In websites and mobile devices, you are using these tools for a certain end. You are seeking something specific. Much of your interactions with the interface could be summarized by the phrase, “how do I get to the next place, page, part, link, etc.” In other words, your gaze is often the moment before you take a navigational step.
Eye-tracking studies have real promise in understanding usage in an unmediated way. Even the smoothest researcher is putting their participant on the spot. In this case, the participant is acting in a somewhat normal way. Tools, like the Tobii, do require participants to sit very still–which is not terrible real-world. But, at least, they are not being artificially prompted by a person.
Eye-tracking studies are not just about where people look, but also understanding this in correlation to time. What did they look at first? What are the patterns of things they looked at? What didn’t they look at? In other words, one is assessing behavior. This can then be correlated with attitudinal data, from their talk alouds, for example. But, at the core, eye-tracking is about behavior.