Marketing research is a broad and diverse field, one that does not lend itself easily to blanket characterizations. It includes the study of advertising, signage, retail, packaging, products, services, devices, media, websites and just about every other salable stimulus that people encounter in their daily lives. Because there are so many different areas, simple descriptions of “what we do” typically fall short. However, I submit that there is one statement that can be applied globally to our field: 

Marketing researchers seek to see the world through the eyes of the consumer. 

Whether you are evaluating Super Bowl commercials or super-absorbent paper towels, it’s safe to say that at least part of the goal of your research is to understand the personal experience of the people that you are testing. And where does that personal experience come from? What is the means by which consumers see their world? It’s vision, of course – the sense of sight. By some estimates, 90 percent of the information that humans perceive is visual, and that includes the entire spectrum of our experience in the marketplace – every site we visit, every sale we see, every billboard we pass, every shop we browse and every item we consider for purchase. 

Eye tracking is the only methodology that can be used to record and analyze true visual experience. This cutting-edge technology allows marketing researchers to literally see through the eyes of the participant. The resulting data is incredibly useful as a means of evaluating current designs, testing new concepts and developing a better understanding of the customer’s perspective overall. The applications are endless and yet the adoption of eye tracking by businesses has been relatively slow. Given the value of understanding shopper attention, using this tool seems like a no-brainer. So why isn’t every research department in every company in the world making use of eye tracking?

The answer to that question has a lot to do with the slow pace at which the technology has developed. One might aptly describe the early days of eye tracking as “clunky.” Systems were cumbersome, fielding was complicated, data management was slow and analysis was convoluted. This is obviously not the best situation for collecting naturalistic data and turning it quickly into results, but a lot has changed in the last few years. Currently, we are witnessing an eye tracking revolution where many of the barriers-to-use have been bulldozed by high-tech advancements. Following are eight recent innovations that have elevated eye tracking from a clunky study add-on to a simple, effective and complete research tool.

#1. Unobtrusive Wearable Eye Trackers for Real-World Testing

For decades, “head-mounted” eye trackers have enabled research in real world environments (i.e., outside of the lab). However, early versions of these systems obstructed the view of the participant, required tethering to a powerful computer and were generally uncomfortable to wear. Studying consumer behavior is a delicate exercise and this model of eye tracker was distracting, to say the least. Fortunately, the “head-mounted” systems of the past have given way to the “wearables” of today. These new systems are no more obtrusive than a pair of glasses. Setup is simple, connection to a computer is not required and, best of all, the data can be observed by the researcher in real time. This newfound capability to collect accurate data in a natural testing scenario with live video feedback makes eye tracking a much better fit for marketing research. 

There are several areas that have been positively impacted by these new wearable systems, including testing of outdoor advertising, in-home media and mobile devices. By far the biggest beneficiary of this innovation has been retail. The ability to slip a discreet eye tracker onto a customer and record what they see in a real store browsing real products during a real shopping trip has been a game changer. Now that this data can be collected in a realistic manner, more companies than ever are including eye tracking as one of their primary shopper-testing methodologies. 

#2. Portable Systems for Portable Research on Screen

Screen-based eye trackers did not suffer through the same kinds of growing pains as head-mounted systems. Fifteen years ago, if you wanted to test a website on a computer, you could have done so in a way that felt natural to the participant – no heavy headset, no difficult calibration, no restriction on movement. It was a delightfully straightforward method to employ. That is, unless it was necessary to test outside of your lab. For research that was taking place offsite or – heaven forbid – in multiple locations, it was necessary to bring along a bulky eye tracker, a desktop computer, and a variety of cords, cables, splitters and switchers. Packing was time-consuming. Shipping was expensive. Setup and configuration were a headache. To put it simply, portability was a major issue. 

Fast-forward to the present. Now, I can stick an eye tracker in my pocket, grab my tablet, walk down to the coffee shop and be collecting data on the patrons there in minutes. Today’s screen-based systems are ultra-portable and instantly configured to collect accurate data on-the-go. That adds an important element to eye tracking: agility. Because digital design moves fast, research methods must be quickly deployable or else they will not factor into the end result. The average type-A Silicon Valley dynamo is much more likely to use the technology if they can avoid asking questions such as “Is the eye tracker set up? Can we reserve time in the lab? How quickly can we recruit participants to our office?” The smaller, simpler systems that are now available make it realistic to perform agile testing of anything anywhere at any time. 

#3. Cloud-Based Platforms for Data Management and Live Streaming

While the systems themselves were shrinking, eye tracking had another size problem to solve. As anyone who has ever run a study will attest, the files can get very large. That’s because an eye tracker collects thousands of data points every minute and renders that data onto a high-definition video of each participant’s point-of-view. This can add up to several gigabytes which then must be transferred from the fielding team to the analysts. Before the days of lightning-quick Internet, this often meant resorting to (gasp!) sending discs or hard drives in the mail. At the end of the project, the same approach was required to send HD videos and multimedia reports to the client. Most researchers need results as soon as possible and having the data sitting idly on a mail truck for multiple days as the deadline approaches is far from ideal. 

High-speed Internet has changed just about every business and eye tracking is no exception. Data can now be uploaded and downloaded using cloud-based platforms, effectively eliminating data transit days. On the back end of the project, the same platforms can be used to share results with the client, which not only saves time, but also makes distributing reports easier. Perhaps even more important than the storage functionality of cloud-based platforms is the streaming. In the new connected eye tracking workflow, clients and stakeholders can watch live video during data collection from anywhere. Forget about waiting a week or more to see the world through the eyes of your customer; now you can login and do it in real time from the comfort of your own computer. 

#4. Computer Vision: Eye Tracking Software That Sees

The first three innovations mentioned evolved slowly over a period of years, but this next one represents a great leap forward. In real-world environments, the cost in time and resources to analyze eye tracking data has always been a roadblock. Wearable eye trackers allow participants to roam freely, which is great for testing a natural experience but creates problems in synthesizing the data. In order to aggregate data from multiple participants shopping in a store or reading a magazine or using a mobile device, it is often necessary to manually code the attention of each participant through video analysis. This can be a slow and tedious process.

Technology, however, has come to the rescue once again. The latest generation of analysis software for wearable eye trackers includes sophisticated computer vision functionality, which automatically maps the attention of each participant onto the appropriate area of the stimuli. For example, if you are testing a new display in a retail store, you are no longer required to review each participant’s eye tracking video and manually code every fixation onto an image of the display. Computer vision does it for you by processing each frame of each video, identifying the display of interest and instantly transferring the data onto the stimuli. This real-world mapping of data provides researchers with aggregate heat maps, gaze plots and viewing statistics faster, cheaper and in a more reliable manner.

#5. Integration With Biometric Data

As eye tracking has become more natural, convenient,efficient and affordable, a variety of other research technologies have progressed in kind, most notably biometric tools. There is obviously a lot more to consumer behavior than eye movements. That’s why eye tracking is usually paired with qualitative methods to fill in the blanks. Today, we’re able to go deeper than that, much deeper. Several technologies that measure how our minds and bodies respond to stimuli are now optimized for marketing research, including electroencephalogram (EEG), galvanic skin response (GSR), electrocardiography (ECG) and facial coding. Tools such as these are designed to capture the inner experience of ads, media, websites, products, stores, etc.

Biometrics can provide a new dimension of insight to your findings, especially when synchronized with eye tracking data. By analyzing where consumers look alongside how they emotionally and cognitively respond, researchers are able to identify the specific elements of the stimuli that are most impactful. Which segments in a movie trailer generate a positive emotional reaction? Which features of an e-commerce site cause stress or confusion? Which package on the shelf is associated with brain activity consistent with desire-to-purchase? By combining eye tracking with biometrics, we can now address such questions in an objective way based on human physiological response to individual elements of marketing materials. 

#6. Integration With Environmental Information

So we have biometrics to examine the inner experience of the consumer, but what about the outer experience? Understanding where people go is an important component of understanding their behavior. Imagine, for example, a study of advertising within a sports stadium. Eye tracking a sample of spectators at a game can be extremely powerful in assessing the most visible ad placements, and yet this data is even more impactful when “location” information is included as well. Knowing exactly which areas people visit, along with which ad executions they notice, provides the full picture of marketing effectiveness.

The great potential of beacon technology has been recognized in many spheres of marketing research. These devices are capable of capturing the location of your participants within a consumer environment and following their path from entry to exit. Not surprisingly, eye tracking researchers have been among the first to adopt beacons into their studies and synchronize the visual attention of shoppers with their physical location. Beyond beacons, some eye tracking hardware systems have integrated positional data by including a gyroscope and accelerometer within the eye tracker itself. This ability to directly apply information from these sensors to eye tracking data will improve the quality of fixation data and enhance 3D mapping in real-world testing scenarios.

#7 Virtual Reality (at Last!)

From actual reality, we now move to virtual (VR) reality. Practical VR has been on the horizon for a long time, and it seems that, with new systems like Oculus, Morpheus and Hololens, we are finally there! The ability to study participants in an artificial, computer-generated store environment offers exciting research possibilities. In this next-generation approach, eye tracking potentially serves two purposes: (1) the virtual scene is responsive to the participant’s eye movements, and (2) the researcher can analyze attention to marketing elements within the environment. 

Studying shopper behavior in virtual environments is admittedly more technically complex than research in real stores, but it offers important advantages. Most importantly, it allows for testing of new packages, new planograms, new displays and new signage without the need to physically produce the materials or modify an existing store. Another advantage is that the virtual store is controlled by the researcher and thus the environment is consistent during all shopping sessions. That means no poorly-stocked shelves or aisles closed for cleanup or disorganized displays. These logistical and scientific benefits make eye tracking research in computer-generated stores a useful option for certain types of studies.

#8. Build-Your-Own Eye Tracking Analysis Tools Using Software Development Kits (SDKs)

Eye tracking will never be a finished technology. Because this tool is so versatile, researchers continue to find new and amazing ways to apply it. Much of the innovation is driven by companies specializing in eye tracking but it is more than just a factory-made, “black box” product. Manufacturers of eye tracking hardware and systems have recently released SDKs for their products and have thereby opened up eye tracking to a wide variety of novel, specialized uses.

Access to SDKs means that all your company needs to create customized eye tracking applications is (1) a developer and (2) a big idea. Today, several brands and research providers are using eye tracking data to meet unique business objectives by doing the programming on their own. This includes new ways to visualize eye tracking data, new metrics to describe consumer behavior and integration of eye tracking data with other types of results. The possibilities for adapting eye tracking to your research goals are endless now that everyone can access the SDK. 

Conclusion

It’s certainly an exciting time to be studying consumer visual behavior. The items discussed in this article represent major advancements in the field of eye tracking and have resulted in a more natural, efficient and powerful research tool. For eye tracking practitioners, that means better return on investment as well as greater freedom to execute your project on your terms. Word is beginning to spread about this less-clunky iteration of eye tracking. The number of marketing researchers using it is on the rise and the insights of this growing community will undoubtedly continue to fuel the fire of innovation.