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Should retailers make use of eye-tracking technology?

By Retail Technology | Wednesday May 1 2013

In the next of our series of ‘Ask the Expert’ columns, eye-tracking technology expert, Simon Griffin, argues those not looking at its potential benefits might be missing a trick

The technology-based research method that reveals what people look at and for how long when interacting with a given stimulus, known as ‘eye tracking’ may have recieved bad press in the past for its perceived invasiveness.

Simon Griffin, director of design at web experience consultancy Etre, said that, as a result, retailers have been wary of employing it as a means of evaluating their products, websites, advertising and point-of-sale materials. 

“In the past, this reputation was perhaps deserved,” he stated. “But today, it really isn’t. While eye tracking may seem new, scientists in the field of perceptual psychology have been conducting this type of research since the early part of the 19th century, while businesses have been conducting commercial studies for well over a decade. As such, the procedures are well established and the results, robust.”
He said that people had found eye tracking techniques intrusive, causing subjects to behave in an unnatural manner and compromising the results. 

Getting in the way of experience

“Nowadays, eye tracking is completely unobtrusive,” he claimed. “Subjects do not need to wear any special gear or be restrained in any way, and can therefore move around without impediment.” The technology for evaluating screen-based media (such as websites, software and videos) is concealed within or below the monitor; while the technology for evaluating physical objects (such as products, posters and point-of-sale materials) is concealed within an inconspicuous black box that sits a few feet in front of the subject (below the line of their gaze). This technology tracks the position of the subject’s pupils by bouncing a beam of invisible infrared light off their face and recording the reflection in their retinas (along with the position of their head) via a series of hidden video cameras.
Despite advances in testing, another prevailing assumption is that, since it is possible to look at one thing while thinking about another, eye tracking data is misleading.

“This is perhaps the most common objection of all,” Griffin continued. “But, it too is unfounded, according to the ‘mind-eye hypothesis’. Devised by Just and Carpenter in 1980, this hypothesis posits that what people are looking at and what they are thinking about tends to be the same. That’s not to say that people are always thinking about what they are looking at. Generally speaking, however, the mind-eye hypothesis holds true (and has been confirmed by a number of independent studies). Eye tracking therefore does, in fact, tell us what people are thinking about.”

Good or bad attention?
People who spend a long time looking at a particular passage of text may be doing so because they are finding it fascinating, or because they are finding it convoluted and difficult to understand. Similarly, people who ignore a particular advertisement may be doing so because they deem it uninteresting, or because they deem it interesting, but irrelevant to their immediate needs. 

“This doesn’t mean that eye tracking is futile though,” countered Griffin. “It just means that eye tracking should rarely (if ever) be used as a standalone method of research. In other words, eye tracking should be used in conjunction with other research methods – such as, interrogation (i.e. asking questions while or after subjects interact with the stimulus), emotional response analysis (such as heart rate monitoring or skin conductance analysis) and body language assessments to obtain the missing insight into subjects’ thoughts and intentions. The power of eye tracking therefore lies in its ability to direct the use of these other research methods.”
While eye tracking may once have been a flaky, intrusive form of art (as opposed to science), Griffin is keen to argue that is no longer the case. “Today, eye tracking is a well-established, unobtrusive research tool that, when used properly (that is, in conjunction with other research methods), produces otherwise unobtainable insights into what is going on inside peoples’ heads,” he concluded. “So if you’ve discounted it in the past, maybe it’s time you gave it a second look?”

What do you think? Have your say by joining the discussion as part of the Retail Technology Group on LinkedIn.

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