Shop Direct using eye-tracking technology to test tablet usage and owner Shop Direct is currently running some behind-the-scenes tests to see how people view and navigate its websites on tablet devices.

It is no secret that mobile technology – be it smartphones or tablets such as the Apple iPad – is becoming an integral part of the customer shopping process, and Shop Direct itself predicts that in two years' time every sale it achieves will have seen a customer touch a mobile device at some stage in the purchase journey.

With that in mind, the retailer is running in-house tests in a controlled environment to gauge usability patterns on tablets to see how best to present tablet-optimised websites to customers in the future.

Shop Direct eCommerce director Jonathan Wall told Essential Retail: "We're trying to learn more about how people interact with us online, particularly on tablet which is a consumption device where they tend to sit back and consume data.

"Eyeball tracking is new for us – we've only had it in for two and half months and have been testing it on desktop, but now we have put it on tablets. The image trackers attached to the tablets will scan retinas to check what people are actually looking at."

Results of the studies in Shop Direct's research and development facilities will be used to help design the layout of its websites, and give the retailer a better understanding of what is essentially a new type of shopper.

In tests to date, Shop Direct has seen that people tend to be drawn to images, rather than words, but with tablet usage still relatively new to the mass market, there is still much for retailers to learn.

Wall added: "It's a long-term thing, and it's about understanding behaviour on tablets.

"Customers are behaving differently, compared to how they use desktops and laptops. On tablets we're looking at navigation as one of the key areas, and lots of our efforts are going into this. We want to know where the hotspots are when a tablet is portrait compared to landscape – and these tests will give us the information."

For some years, retailers have been using mouse-tracking to locate hotspots of user activity on desktop websites, but eye-tracking technology can provide similar intelligence for devices that do not use a mouse.

Infrared projections and sensors are used to gather data about gaze direction and eye movements. In combination with web recording technology, the sensors allow researchers to quantify a person's visual behaviours, for example scanning, exploring or focusing of on-screen elements.

The overall aim of this process is to discover things such as what catches users' attention on a homepage and whether they explore web pages differently by product type.

The level of research that Shop Direct is putting into tablet usability highlights just how important the retail world views mobile in the modern-day path to purchase.

Indeed, Wall spoke at the Mobile Marketing Association forum earlier this week and explained how mobile visits to Shop Direct's sites have grown over the years.

At the end of 2010 they accounted for 5% of internet sessions, then grew to 11% in 2011 before reaching a quarter of sessions last year. In 2013 mobile has accounted for half of the total online sessions recorded.

Addressing the delegates at the Grand Connaught Rooms in central London, Wall commented: "Tablet usage is not slowing down at all – you've got to get it right."

The Mobile Marketing Association is a partner of RBTE 2014.