We present a dual eye-tracking study that demonstrates the effect of sharing selection among collaborators in a remote pair-programming scenario. Forty pairs of engineering students completed several program understanding tasks while their gaze was synchronously recorded. The coupling of the programmers’ focus of attention was measured by a cross- recurrence analysis of gaze that captures how much programmers look at the same sequence of spots within a short time span. A high level of gaze cross-recurrence is typical for pairs who actively engage in grounding efforts to build and maintain shared understanding. As part of their grounding efforts, programmers may use text selection to perform collaborative references. Broadcast selections serve as indexing sites for the selector as they attract non-selector’s gaze shortly after they become visible. Gaze cross-recurrence is highest when selectors accompany their selections with speech to produce a multimodal reference.
The fact that pair programming can work pretty well doesn’t mean that it “just works.” Instead, it requires its own set of skills and considerations, and perhaps some people are better suited for it than others. In a controlled experiment using an eye tracker, Jermann and Nüssli show the effect of some of the very low-level actions that people in pairs may take to improve their performance. Specifically, two seemingly simple kinds of actions (talking aloud and selecting the block of text that you’re talking about) bring your partner’s attention to the same screen area. When pairs do this, their level of code comprehension increases.
Jermann and Nüssli’s study had engineers sitting separately, in front of different but shared screens. My guess is that if you and your pair are sitting side by side, other actions with the same purpose (such as pointing with your finger, or with your mouse) should have similar effects.
(As usual, we post links to the actual papers when we find them. I couldn’t in this case, but remember that researchers are usually happy to share their work over email if you ask nicely…)