The eyes have it!

Eye tracking isn’t a new concept to advertising, but the technology used for eye tracking is – and it’s getting better.

James Breeze, usability specialist and CEO of Usable World has a blog about eye tracking (and other things) – it’s really good, go check it out.  Anyway, I’ve seen tons of studies about eye tracking and how people interact with Websites and movies and digital signage, etc.  We’ve done it ourselves for some of the Websites we’ve built.  I like it – I think it’s accurate and a valid form of analysis, but, to me, it has always seemed a bit limited.

The eye tracking research I have seen was generally limited to people in a controlled setting looking at a screen.  Nothing wrong with that, but tough to extrapolate those learnings to other (usually retail) settings.  I have seen cameras mounted on digital signs that could register eye tracking – those were in the retail environment, but were passive – just noting when someone looked at the screen.  I even saw a study once where casino security footage was used to monitor people’s heads to see where they looked and then which way the turned, etc.  It was actually pretty cool – but worked for a casino (big open spaces, big imagery), but wouldn’t work so well where two brands are 2″ apart.

So I always thought that the next step in eye tracking would be to attach a camera to a person and watch them interact with a retail environment.  Of course, a bunch of other people had the same idea, but the cameras were a little awkward, and the study ended up being somewhat flawed, because people became self-conscious about their gear and researchers surmised that they were adjusting their patterns or were too aware of the experiment and tried to please the researchers by looking at everything.  Well, like everything, technology has made it possible to create much smaller cameras and eye tracking devices that reduce self-consciousness and, because are so light and “forgettable,” put people at ease enough that they went about their normal purchasing habits.

Enter Ipsos Mori, a market research firm and its technology partner Eyetracker.  According to Alicia Clegg, writing in the Financial Times, the two are testing equipment that measures every movement of a shopper’s eyes.  She reported on a demonstration in which a businessman, Joe Holdsworth, was recruited at a supermarket to test the equipment.  She writes, “Eyes darting behind his outsized goggles, Mr. Holdsworth uses the overhead signage to get his bearings.  Then he navigates between mil, tea, coffee and biscuits.  He finds most of the items on his shopping list quickly – a few hundred milliseconds is all the brain needs to register an object.  But, faced by a wall of shiny foil packets of ground coffees, he stalls.  Then a Ugandan medium roast in lime green and brown packaging on the bottom shelf catches his eye.  He checks out an alternative, then drops the green and brown pack in his basket. ”

This is the kind of stuff analysts love!  Asking people doesn’t always work – people either forget details or get them mixed up, or quite often give answers they think researchers want to hear.  Using technology – especially technology that gives an unbiased view of the shopper – is an excellent way to develop a creative point-of-difference.  It turns out that the technology can also be used to help develop a better retail environment as well.  Clegg continues the article by writing, “During the post-shopping debrief, footage of Mr. Holdsworth swapping one carton of mil for a different kind prompts Mr. Williams [a qualitative researcher from Ipsos Mori] to zoom in.  As he does so, Mr. Holdsworth says that, ‘I didn’t realize there was more mile,” and points to where a column blocks the line of sight.'”

We can build 3D models, virtual walk-throughs, do everything we think is right, but the bottom-line is that it all comes down to the target audience and how they interact with their environment and the products.  Continual advancements in technology will help us stay ahead of the curve.

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