Tobii - Research spotlight - Bonita Sharif

Research spotlight interviews

Cracking the code

Exploring software development with eye tracking

Resource Details

  • Prepared by

    Dr. Marisa Biondi

  • Read time

    5 min

  • October 9, 2023

Dr. Bonita Sharif shares how eye tracking can provide insights to support software development processes and build better tools.  

Tobii - Bonita Sharif

Bonita Sharif, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the School of Computing at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln, Nebraska USA. Her research interests are in eye tracking related to software engineering, empirical software engineering, program comprehension, emotional awareness, software traceability, and software visualization to support the maintenance of large systems. She directs the Software Engineering Research and Empirical Studies Lab at UNL.

Watch the video interview.

About the interview

In our stimulating conversation, Dr. Sharif shares how she uses eye tracking to understand developers' attention and cognitive processes when writing or evaluating code. Her research findings ultimately help build better programming interfaces and support all software team members.

“We can use the information we learn through eye movements to support development processes by building better tools…to support all the different stakeholders, because it's not just developers. There are testers, there are project managers, there are business analysts and a lot of stakeholders in the process of developing software.”

Dr. Sharif discusses how she started using eye tracking while studying software traceability. While in graduate school, her advisor suggested using an eye tracker to replicate a study about how developers use different coding styles and capture visual attention during the coding process. A Tobii system was available for loan through the library at her university, so she borrowed it for her first project.

(Tobii Tip: if you’re new to eye tracking and can’t afford your own, you may find resources on your campus like Dr. Sharif did to get started, or consider our Funding Support Services!)

Since Dr. Sharif started her eye tracking journey by borrowing an eye tracker, she welcomes new researchers who want to employ eye tracking in their research. There are enough research questions to grow the eye tracking user base and form collaborations.

“Reach out to somebody that you know is already doing eye tracking, because that'll help you just get onboarded quickly. I get emails like this all the time and I'm happy to provide resources to people on where they can get started or a paper they can read. But there's so much work to do in the field, even in just my field of software engineering and eye movements that I can't do it all.”

To help support the natural workflow in a programming environment, Dr. Sharif built iTrace, an open-source tool integrated into development environments. This tool empowers developers to track their eye movements as they code, offering a comprehensive understanding of their work processes. iTrace is compatible with Tobii hardware.

“I like to study how professional developers as well as students work. What separates, for example, an expert from a novice? When does a novice become an expert? When is that “Aha” moment that a novice becomes an expert in whatever their field is?”

Watch the video below to unravel the intricacies of software development, understand the role of eye tracking in its study, and gain valuable insights from Dr. Sharif herself.

Tobii - Bonita Sharif screenshot

Related information

Below you can find a selection of publications reporting on the work mentioned in the interview, which employed eye tracking technology:

Zyrianov, V., Peterson, C.S., Guarnera, D.T. et al. (2022) Deja Vu: semantics-aware recording and replay of high-speed eye tracking and interaction data to support cognitive studies of software engineering tasks—methodology and analyses. Empir Software Eng 27, 168 .

Park, K., Weill-Tessier, P., Brown, N.C.C., Sharif, B., Jensen, N., and Kölling, M. (2023). An eye tracking study assessing the impact of background styling in code editors on novice programmers’ code understanding. In Proceedings of the 2023 ACM Conference on International Computing Education Research - Volume 1 (ICER '23), Vol. 1. Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 444–463.

Abid, N.J., Sharif, B., Dragan, N., Alrasheed, H., & Maletic, J.I. (2019). Developer reading behavior while summarizing java methods: Size and context matters. IEEE/ACM 41st International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE), p. 384-395.

For more on Dr. Sharif´s work, please visit her website.

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In this series of interviews, esteemed researchers discuss how they have used eye tracking across a broad range of applications.

Resource Details

  • Prepared by

    Dr. Marisa Biondi

  • Read time

    5 min

  • October 9, 2023

Interviewed by

  • Tobii Pro employee Dr. Marisa Bondi

    Dr. Marisa Biondi

    Senior Research Scientist and Funding Support Manager, Tobii

    Dr. Biondi has a Ph.D. in Psychological & Brain Sciences from Texas A&M University and used fNIRS and eye tracking to study the functional organization of the developing human brain.

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