Online shoppers, your eyes don’t lie

A man sits at a desk in a dimly lit classroom holding a tablet in front of him.

Online shoppers, your eyes don’t lie

Khaled Hassanein and his colleagues at McMaster University are creating a lab to measure how users respond to e-commerce sites, from where their eyes are drawn to how excited they become
January 20, 2015

Before a website or app goes live, it’s often tested for usability. What grabbed the user’s attention? Is it easy to navigate? Is it useful? Critical questions before the site or app is released into the wilds of the Internet, but there’s one problem: the answers aren’t always reliable.

“It's not that they’re necessarily lying,” explains Khaled Hassanein, director of McMaster University’s eBusiness Research Centre at the DeGroote School of Business, “but we are completely at the mercy of human biases.” Subjects may try to please the experimenter or try to avoid coming across as luddites. But with the right neurophysiological equipment wrapped around subjects’ heads or clipped to their fingertips, researchers can get more reliable results.

With new money from the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) John R. Evans Leaders Fund Hassanein and his colleagues will build an all-encompassing usability lab, dubbed the Advanced Human Computer Interaction Lab (AHCIL), to apply this idea to improve the testing of anything with a computer interface.

Hassanein has conducted seminal studies on e-commerce and digital systems for over a decade. In the mid-2000s, just as the world was crawling out of the dot-com bubble and Internet users were getting comfortable with shopping online, Hassanein and information systems professor Milena Head, one of two other co-leaders of the AHCIL project, were getting a fuller picture of e-commerce, now worth over $1 trillion globally. Their studies, showed how and why human images could enhance consumer trust in e-commerce websites and increase sales for certain products but not others.

At AHCIL, the researchers will expand their traditional behavioural tests with the addition of electroencephalography (EEG) to indicate the subjects’ focus, eye trackers to create heat maps of where they look most and least, facial electromyography to detail emotional reactions and skin conductance technology to measure excitement, fear and arousal.

Hassanein says observational and survey data are still valuable, but neurophysiological data enhances research. “You can now triangulate the results, which gives you more reliable outcomes,” Hassanein explains. A subject may act coy and disinterested with a product, but dilated pupils and increased heart-rate could indicate more excitement than they let on.

This is where Scott Watter, the second co-leader on the project, comes in. The associate professor from the department of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour has expertise that will help integrate and decode the often complicated neurophysiological data.

Though it will be at least a year before the AHCIL equipment arrives and is installed and tested, the team already has big plans. For one of their first experiments, they want to test Millenials’ concentration patterns while playing video games to see if the results can be applied to an education or work context.

Hassanein also expects some industry collaboration. He himself worked in information technology for years while earning an MBA part-time. He credits the degree for opening his eyes to the importance of computer usability. “If you just focus on the technology, without considering the user needs and concerns, and the business model involved to deliver it to the market, then you're often disappointed with the results.”

Omar Mouallem is an Edmonton-based writer.