If, like me, you are interested in biometrics and innovations in the area of UX Research, you may have come across a sensational news item regarding ‘ear tracking’: an ear micromovement analysis technology, said to be a potential game changer in the area of user tests. Once I got over the surprise and looked at the publication date (April 1st 2019), I realised it was a hoax.
However, this April Fool’s joke by the Nielsen Normal Group teaches us something interesting about our profession. As UX designers, we spend the better part of our days in front of a screen designing, creating and testing digital products. We have specific software tools for almost all parts of our work. Most of us are also surrounded by digital services in our personal lives.
However, when it comes to conducting user tests, it is almost surprising to note that our main tools – the traditional paper and pen – have stood the test of time so well.
However, things are changing in this field. A sign of the times, more and more companies are turning to biometric technologies, which were previously confined to the world of scientific research, as UX Research tools.
In order to gain an idea of the set of tools that could become available to us and take a closer look at what may be the future of our profession, I would like to give you an overview of biometric devices with potential applications in test situations.
Biometrics and user tests: which solutions?
Eye tracking is probably the most well-known and common method in user testing. By tracking the eyes of your users, you can check what they are looking at as they browse during a test.
For user tests on desktops, I would recommend the screen-based method. If you are performing tests on smartphones, either solution may be used, but neither is totally satisfactory. You may also want to take a look at this method, which is promising, but which I am unable to recommend due to a lack of feedback in context.
Measurement of cerebral activity
This is not science fiction, but two very real, tried-and-tested technologies, which could make their way into the field of testing sooner than we think.
While relatively costly and complex to use, these technologies make it possible to estimate the mental load of users in real conditions. Using the most modern solutions, you can also infer the nature of emotions they are experiencing.
Did you say science fiction?
Basic biometric sensors
Back to basics: here are two biometric technologies from another century. The electrocardiograph (or ECG) can be used to record the heart rate of testers.
Galvanic Skin Response (GSR), on the other hand, involves sweat. By measuring variations in humidity on the surface of users’ skin, strong emotions, such as fear or excitement, can be detected.
Obviously, neither of these technologies is revolutionary, but they do offer several advantages. They are inexpensive, convenient and easy to transport (most smart watches have an ECG system, for example). You can therefore assess the impact of a system in real conditions over a long period.
Voice and face recognition
Born of a convergence between simple hardware (microphone, camera) and artificial intelligence, these technologies are growing fast. Their promise: detection of testers’ emotions through their voices or facial expressions.
Other advantage: these systems are easy to use and have very little impact on testers during testing.
At the present time, these solutions still lack reliability, but they are developing very rapidly. Stay tuned…
What will the biometrics of tomorrow look like?
Will we all be researchers?
The several techniques presented above have not all reached the same level of maturity. Some are already being used in studies, such as eye trackers at the WAX Lab. Others, however, will never make it into common use in our field.
Nevertheless, these new technologies will require that the UX Researchers who use them acquire new skills. This is why I think it is necessary to take an interest in them right away, in particular to gain sufficient perspective by the time they come knocking on our door.
In-person testing: a method with a bright future!
More conventional test methods are not threatened by these biometric analysis techniques. This is primarily because in-person user testing is the most spontaneous (and easiest) way to interact with testers. It also offers the best way for us to focus on their emotions, non-verbal language, etc. This type of testing still offers one of the best balances between time spent and insight quality.
At WAX Interactive, we carry out conventional user tests on a daily basis. They have remained effective to this day and we still have much to learn about our users!
UX Designer – WAX Interactive