Casey Taylor
Biz/Tech Reporter

A Humber teacher is looking to use the funding he won in the most recent round Staff Initiated Research Fund awards to research the way you look at a computer screen.

Bernie Monette, a program coordinator from Humber’s School of Media Studies and Information Technology, will collect data on the way people gaze around a web page in order to help determine the usability of a site.

His idea was one of 12 funding recipients from the 2013 round of Humber’s Staff-Initiated Research Fund. SIRF is a competition meant to promote and nurture original externally focused research.

Laura Keating, research facilitator with Humber Research, said the program is looking to fund projects with use outside of the classroom. “Our ultimate goal is something that can be pointed to as an economic development,” she said.

Nicholas Wiktorczyk, a former Humber business student and co-founder of Spently, a company that lets retailers fully customize e-receipts and track which links are clicked on and by whom, described how essential seed funding can be.

“It was crucial (for us), it really gave us what we needed to take the next step,” said Wiktorczyk. “Winning that $8,000 from Humber and getting the support behind us gave us the confidence and the funding to take the next step. It was sort of like the carrot dangling in front of our nose.”

Monette said his research data will be collected with the help of students as part of course work. He said Humber is nearly unique in this sort of curriculum.

“We’re probably one of the few colleges that teach web development who actually have a usability course built into the program,” said Monette.

The problem with typical usability tests according to Monette is that the person running them will have an impact on the results. Monette’s idea is to negate this factor through the use of state of the art eye-tracking technology.

“Do people look before they leap…do people look at something and then click on it?” said Monette.  “If they do that, can we show that through eye-tracking?”

A major hitch in the research is the cost. Monette said he is currently limited to only one tracker as it came at a cost of $44,000.

He said even if the user is wearing glasses, the tracker is able to see eye movement and output its data in the form of a heat map.

“Wherever the eye rests longest, it goes redder,” said Monette

Monette’s research is expected to identify patterns in the way people’s eyes dart around the screen and expose what things draw attention more than others.

“One of the most usable things with a car is the turn signal, it tells us that the person in front of us is intending to turn,” said Monette. “Are there similar things to a turn signal that shows us the user’s intent that we can use to our advantage in redesigning a site?”

Through gaining a better understanding of these things, website developers will be able to make better sites for those who use them.

“One of the parts of best practices is to balance the impact of the client with the impact of the developer and the impact of the user,” said Monette. “But the funny thing is the user has almost no impact on the design, but they’re the ones stuck using it.

“That’s sort of the irony of it, you have to suffer through somebody else’s design,” he concluded. “The developers don’t use it, the clients don’t use it, but they have to use it.”