upa - home page JUS - Journal of usability studies
An international peer-reviewed journal

Reliability of Self-Reported Awareness Measures Based on Eye Tracking

William Albert and Donna Tedesco

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 5, Issue 2, Feb 2010, pp. 50 - 64

Article Contents


So, what does all of this mean? To make sense of the data, we must first consider the context of false alarms and misses. In a user-centered design process, false alarms are almost always more relevant than misses. Letís look at two different scenarios. In a false alarm scenario, a design team wants to test if a particular object is noticed. During a usability evaluation they ask participants whether or not they noticed a particular object. Some participants may say they noticed the object, but did not. In this scenario, the design team may incorrectly conclude that the object is visually prominent enough, and no steps are required to increase its visual prominence. In a miss scenario, a design team wants to make sure that an object is not noticed. They run a usability evaluation and ask the participants if they noticed a particular object. Some of the participants report not seeing the object, whereas they actually did notice it. This would result in the design team incorrectly deciding not to make the object more hidden.

Based on our experience, the false alarm scenario is fairly common in usability evaluations, whereas the miss scenario is extremely unlikely. In order for the miss scenario to occur, a design team would have a goal of making an object difficult to notice. This certainly can happen, particularly if a designer is trying to make certain warnings or cost information appear less prominent. We certainly donít endorse this design approach, but it does happen. In the miss scenario, the participant would also have some motivation for not saying they saw something that they actually did. This could conceivably happen if the participant was embarrassed in some way. Because both of these conditions are very unlikely to occur together within a single scenario, we feel that analyzing misses as part of an overall error rate is misleading. Therefore, we believe examining false alarms, and not misses, is more realistic and useful to the practitioner.

When considering only false alarms the picture is much clearer. In Experiment 1, there was a false alarm rate of 10%, and in Experiment 2 there was a false alarm rate of 5%. In other words, using either awareness question, the practitioner will not draw the incorrect conclusion more than 10% of the time. In Experiment 1 the success rate was 55% and 29% in Experiment 2. Therefore, the practitioner can make a tradeoff. If a practitioner wants to be very conservative and minimize false alarms, they should consider asking an awareness question based on a more continuous scale, similar to Experiment 2. The downside is that they will be less likely to be able to confirm participants who actually said they saw it or did not see it. If the practitioner is willing to accept a higher false alarm rate using a more discrete awareness scale, they will better be able to confirm that participants noticed or did not notice an element.

The false alarm rate for navigation and image elements was lower in both experiments than functional elements. In Experiment 1 the false alarm rates were about 7% for both the navigation and image elements. In Experiment 2 the false alarm rates were about 4% for the same elements. This is very encouraging, suggesting that there are certain elements that produce highly reliable results, regardless of how the question is structured.

The memory test focused only on false alarms. It was interesting to see that the false alarms were considerably higher in Experiment 1 (27%) compared to Experiment 2 (9%). This suggests that a more continuous scale may tease apart those participants that are much more confident, and those participants that might be a little less confident in their awareness for a particular object. Perhaps the discrete nature of Experiment 1 is pulling those participants that think they saw the object, but may not be sure, into the category of definitely saw it.

Limitations and Next Steps

There were a few limitations to this study. First, the dependent measures of fixation counts and gaze duration were not ideally suited for confirming lack of awareness. It was quite possible that an individual fixated on an element, yet was not attending or processing the information. Therefore, there was a certain level of noise represented in miss errors. Second, it was possible that usability participants exhibited different eye movement patterns and awareness levels when performing tasks, as compared to general orientation. While general orientation was quite common, particularly for new visitors to a website, it only represented one type of activity on a website. Third, it was possible that participants may have been familiar with some of the websites used in the study. When asked about their awareness, they may have been responding from long term memory. This could have resulted in false alarm errors. Basically, they said they saw it, because they remembered it from some past experience, yet had no fixations on it.

There are several directions for future research. To further validate the findings in this paper, we suggest studying the impact of task-driven behavior on the reliability of self-reported awareness measures. Also, we would like to expand the type of elements. For example, it is possible that self-reported awareness of images of faces may be more reliable. Finally, it would be helpful to develop other types of measures of awareness. While we only tested two measures, it is quite possible that other measures may produce more reliable results.


Asking usability participants if they noticed a particular element on a website or software application is common practice. Often times this information is the basis for important design decisions, particularly around making certain features more visually prominent. This study has clearly demonstrated that there is reliability in self-reported awareness measures. Usability practitioners should feel comfortable that at least most of the time when a participant reports seeing an object, that they actually did. This will in turn help practitioners make more confident design decisions.

The manner in which the usability practitioner asks a participant about whether or not they noticed an object will have an impact on what is reported back to them. If a practitioner wants to identify as many participants as possible who saw an object, with less regard for accuracy, they should use an awareness question that is more discrete in nature. If a practitioner wants to be as confident as possible in those participants that report seeing an object, that actually did, they should use an awareness question that is more continuous in nature.

We do not suggest that one simple self-report awareness question can be a substitute for the reliability and versatility of an eye tracking system. There are many other research questions about awareness that can only be effectively answered using an eye tracking system. Asking a participant about awareness certainly may be useful during the course of a usability evaluation, but it is only the start in regards to all the questions a practitioner might have about how users look at a design.

Previous | Next