You probably won’t read this article word for word—and you’re not alone. Humans typically respond to visual stimuli by paying attention to some things more than others. They skim over some words, re-read others, and skip entire sections.
How a person’s eye moves around a page, design, or space reveals a lot about what does—and doesn’t—capture their attention. That’s why cutting-edge eye-tracking technology is growing in demand among market research professionals.
Eye-tracking is a powerful tool for gathering, analyzing, and utilizing data about what goes on in consumers’ minds. Those insights can be used to optimize brand performance and improve marketing ROI.
Read on to learn more about the fundamentals of eye-tracking technology and its uses in market research.
What is eye-tracking?
Eye-tracking is a research methodology for measuring where a person looks, providing insight into their thinking.
Using machine learning and advanced image processing, it’s possible to record almost everything about how the eye interacts with something in front of it.
This real-time data can be helpful in market research. It allows for a deeper understanding of consumer reactions to almost any visual stimulus, from a website or technology platform to product packaging or an in-store display.
Eye-tracking unlocks the unconscious decision-making process. It gives marketers quantifiable data about user intention, where their interest lies, what they overlook, and how they respond to different stimuli.
This data humanizes technology, creating intuitive solutions that meet consumers’ actual needs and desires.
How does eye tracking work?
Eye-tracking technology uses near-infrared light and high-resolution cameras to track how the eye moves in response to stimuli.
- Light is directed toward the center of the eye to create reflections in the pupil and cornea. Infrared light is invisible; it doesn’t distract or harm the eyes.
- A camera records the reflections (called pupil center corneal reflection or PCCR), tracking the person’s exact point of focus.
- Advanced mathematical algorithms calculate various data points, such as eye position, gaze or focus point, duration of attention, eye openness, blink rate, and changes in pupil diameter.
- The data processed by eye tracking software helps researchers understand where, when, and what people viewed.
The exact data a researcher collects depends on the hardware and software they select from the many companies that offer the technology.
Some tools also integrate biometric data, like heart rate and galvanic skin response, to add depth to findings. Also, a similar head tracking technology monitors the position and movements of the head. It can be combined with eye tracking to uncover more meaningful data.
There are two main types of eye-tracking technology:
● Participants sit in front of and interact with a computer screen that has a stationary unit mounted below or nearby. Movement is limited within the static area.
● Recommended for controlled environments. Webcam options can be used in a participants’ home, but proper calibration isn’t guaranteed and can negatively affect results.
● Ideal for screen-based materials (pictures, videos, and websites) or static offline stimuli (packaging, magazines, books).
● Wearable devices are integrated into eyeglass frames or inside a virtual reality headset, allowing users to move freely around a space.
● A large amount of movement, as with sports, could cause glasses to shift during recording and negatively affect results.
● Ideal for performing tasks in a real-life or virtual environment (shopping, usability studies, product testing).
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What does eye-tracking measure?
This advanced technology can measure almost anything about the eye, but what does the information tell us?
Discover where a user’s eyes look at a rate of up to 60 points per second. This tells you exactly how long the eye fixates on an object or area or what actually generates visual attention.
Plotting out where the eye fixates in chronological order creates a visual path that reveals how consumers tend to scan something. This can help determine whether the information is logically and efficiently organized.
Aggregate data showing the distribution of users’ focus points to understand what consumers are most and least likely to notice. The larger your sample pool, the more you can determine differences in how various populations view the same object or space.
Areas of Interest (AOI)
Measure specific areas of a video, website, package, or display to determine how long it takes a user to notice something, how many people notice an AOI, how long they view the area, and how often they return to an AOI. You can also compare the performance of separate areas.
Using eye tracking in market research
The eye-tracking market is exploding, expected to reach nearly $1.1 billion by 2025, up from $368 million in 2020. Clearly, the data this technology generates is valuable.
Let’s explore exactly how to use this information in marketing research.
● In-Store: Head-mounted eye tracking is highly effective for evaluating store navigation, signage, and product displays. Rather than using unreliable recall methods, customers walk around a store (or a VR simulation). At the same time, the technology captures the path they take, what draws their attention, and what they ignore.
● Packaging design: Before releasing a product, eye tracking can test how well users respond to the various elements. This type of testing is particularly well-suited to A/B testing that compares two or several options to see which generates the most fixations on key AOIs.
● Website: To deliver the best user experience on a website, it helps get inside the consumer’s mind. Eye-tracking is the most effective way to test what elements of a site capture attention (or cause someone to click away), and what influences desired actions. Initial and follow-up retesting can determine what messages, fonts, colours, and placements best attract and retain leads, dramatically increasing marketing ROI.
● Advertising: Eye tracking can help assess the success of print or digital advertising communication—what does and does not draw attention. It’s also an effective tool for testing changes to see what improves results.
Regardless of the visual stimulus tested, eye tracking can help determine which elements attract immediate attention or above-average attention and in which order they’re viewed, as well as what is ignored or, perhaps, misunderstood.
Market researchers can propose changes that improve usability, effectiveness, and overall customer experience with this data. Best of all, the technology can be used to retest new iterations to determine how successful they are at improving desired results.
It’s important to note that eye-tracking falls short in determining the psychology behind a user’s actions. It can provide accurate data about what, where, and for how long a person looks, but understanding motivation requires other market research methodologies, such as surveys and interviews.
What industries can use eye-tracking?
As eye-tracking technology continues to become more affordable and more widely understood, it’s not surprising it’s attracting more users.
While applicable to many industries, the technology is commonly used for market research on various commercial sectors. Bank branches, car dealerships, groceries, malls, and other retail environments frequently employ the technology to better understand and improve the customer experience.
Eye-tracking is also vital in technology, becoming a more frequent interface method for computers, phones, video games, and televisions.
Finally, the methodology contributes to advancements in automotive safety, workplace safety, medical diagnoses, and accessibility for people with disabilities.
What are the pros and cons of eye-tracking for market research?
Modern eye-tracking technology has been used for market research since the 1980s. It endures because it of three key benefits:
● Unique: Eye tracking reveals what other data collection methods cannot. It shows what a user actually looks at and ignores and how they scan an object or a space.
● Reliable: Very little market research is 100% accurate, but eye-tracking precisely captures eye movements down to milliseconds. It provides an accurate history of the what, where, and how of viewing patterns (interpretation of the why is a different story).
● Easy Testing: You can immediately test a hypothesis about what might improve the visual performance of a website, package, or display. Make the change, then see if it had the expected effect on the user’s view.
Despite the many benefits, there remain a few challenges with using eye-tracking technology in marketing research.
● Cost: Eye-tracking studies require money, time, and labour. The equipment and training can be pricey. Plus, each device can record only one person at a time, so it takes a great deal of time to get a meaningful sample size.
(For researchers with budget constraints, tools like Hotjar’s Heatmaps and Mouseflow may be an affordable alternative. They show where a mouse hovers. While not perfect, there’s some correlation between where a person points the mouse and where their eyes move.)
● Limitations: Eye-tracking technology can be less effective for participants who wear contacts or glasses or squint. Also, incorrectly calibrated trackers or head-mounted devices that shift can invalidate results.
● Bias: The Hawthorne Effect, or a person changing their behaviour when they know they’re being observed, may create some degree of error with results. Likewise, there is always some bias in data interpretation or deciding the “why” behind the eye movements.
Best practices for eye tracking in market research
Eye-tracking technology is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s also not the best and only option for market research.
In truth, eye tracking is best combined with other research methodologies, such as interviews and surveys. Using eye-tracking in conjunction with other tools is the best way to ensure more accurate results.
Many researchers prefer to use eye tracking in the latter stages of market research as a diagnostic tool. It can be used to test a few solutions to perceived problems. For example, if people aren’t clicking through a website as desired, eye tracking can be used to test whether a button in a different colour or location improves results.
According to research from Harvard Business School, 95 per cent of purchase decision-making occurs in the subconscious mind. That’s why many market researchers rely on eye-tracking. It’s a powerful tool for understanding what goes on in consumers’ minds.
While not failproof, eye tracking provides reliable data about how a person views the world in front of them. Those insights can be valuable in optimizing websites, product packaging, store displays, and most importantly, improving marketing ROI.