How A Mouse Can Sniff Out Bad Web Design

Brigham Young University professor Jeffrey Jenkins says analyzing cursor movements can detect how a person feels about a website.

How A Mouse Can Sniff Out Bad Web Design
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Companies can pump millions into a website’s design, implementing the splashiest graphics and seemingly intuitive information architecture. But that doesn’t guarantee users will like the site. Brigham Young University professor Jeffrey Jenkins argues that taking note of how users move their mouse while on a webpage reveals positive or negative associations with the page and could lead to better web design.


In MIS Quarterly, a peer-reviewed information systems journal, Jenkins and his research partners Martin Hibbeln, Christoph Schneider, Markus Weinmann, and Joseph S. Valacich, published the results of three studies which conclude that erratic, imprecise cursor movements signal that a user is feeling frustrated, angry, confused, and/or sad. In other words, they’re having an awful experience.

Drawing on Attention Control Theory—which argues that negative emotion decreases people’s ability to control their attention—Jenkins aimed to answer two questions: Does negative emotion influence mouse cursor distance and speed and can the tracking and analysis of mouse cursor distance and speed be used to infer negative emotion?

“Traditionally it has been very difficult to pinpoint when a user becomes frustrated, leading them to not come back to a site,” Jenkins says in a news release. “Being able to sense a negative emotional response, we can adjust the website experience to eliminate stress or to offer help.”

In one of three studies testing his hypothesis—that negative emotion will increase the distance a cursor travels and decrease the cursor speed—Jenkins and his fellow researchers asked their subjects to complete tasks online, like purchasing something from a mock e-commerce site. The researchers then manipulated certain points in the interaction to elicit a response. For example, creating error messages and slowing download times. Another study involved carrying out a number-ordering task on Amazon’s crowdsourcing marketplace Mechanical Turk. The last one involved trying to use an online customization tool. Afterward, the subjects indicated how they felt at certain points during the experiment using a SAM scale.

Researchers have experimented with other metrics to assess how users respond to a website—like eyetracking studies. They hope is that quantifying how users interact with a website and where the pain points are will better inform interface design.

“Using this technology, websites will no longer be dumb,” Jenkins says. “Websites can go beyond just presenting information, but they can sense you. They can understand not just what you’re providing, but what you’re feeling.”



About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.