Eyeing the Consumer

One of the primitive eye-tracking studies conducted was by Hunziker et al (1970). Participants were presented with a visual problem, which was displayed on a glass plate. They were then filmed through the other side of the plate. The eye-movements of the participants were analyzed on the basis of the position of the visual problem with reference to the fixation point of the eye. Eye tracking has been applied in the past to study and understand how users interact with objects or products, in order to improve product design – known as Usability Engineering. One of the earliest usability engineering research was conducted to study the movements of pilots’ eyes as they landed the plane using the array of instruments and controls (Fitts et al, 1947). A similar study was conducted by Anders (2001) on flight simulators with pilots wearing a head mounted eye tracker.

The modern eye-tracker device has taken many technological leaps. The emphasis has been to design the tracker to look as innocuous as possible so as to make participants feel comfortable and to elicit behavior at its natural best. A Swedish Company named ‘Tobii’ founded in 2001 has managed to develop an eye-tracking device that lets users wear them unobtrusively and does not restrain head movements.

According to Internet Retailing, the cost of each pair of Tobii Glasses is $45,000. This includes the tracking device, a data collection device as well as the Tobii Studio software for analyzing the data collected.

An interesting study was conducted in a bar using eye-trackers, to understand how consumers choose which pint of beer would they like to consume.

Here is a video that shows the eye movements of a participant from that study after he enters the bar. Notice how even after the patron places the order; he still gazes at other brands of beer, continuing to evaluate his choice post-purchase.

Client: Carlsberg

Agency: Ipsos, Sweden

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Data about eye-movements can be useful in many different areas and fields to gain insights that cannot be collected based on explicit measurement tools.


Implications of eye-tracking technology

Search Engines

Numerous eye-tracking studies have been conducted to test how users analyze search results produced by a search engine. Google has carried out research in their labs to understand how users scan their results.

Take a look at the heat map generated by a user on a typical search result page:

The darker the pattern the more time they spent looking at that spot. The results show that most users found what they were trying to look for in the first two results and seldom read further than the first four links. Users most often ignore looking at the right side of the page, which displays the sponsored advertisements (Aula and Rodden, 2009).

If you use Google regularly, you must have noticed that when you search for a query, it now returns images as well as textual links on the same page. They call this a Universal search. Google ran a series of studies to test whether the image results on the same page were distracting to the user.

Here is a video of how users scan the results in real time. The larger the dot gets, the longer the user pauses and gazes at that spot.

It was found that the thumbnails do not distract the user, or affect the order of scanning the results. It made it easier for participants to find what they were looking for.


In the chaotic world of supermarket shelves, it is a herculean task to get your brand noticed among a host of other competitor brands placed together. Eye-tracking technology can help understand how a consumer filters the information and selectively attends to stimuli that interest him or her most.

Pieters and Warlop (1999) conducted an eye-tracking study that examined how time pressure affects motivation and consumer choice. The results showed that consumers adapt to the time pressure condition by making shorter eye-fixations and concentrate more on the pictorial information of a product that on the textual information.

So how do consumers buy a product at a supermarket?
Russo and Leclerc (1994) conducted a study to understand how shoppers select a product amongst competing brands through a supermarket shelf simulation in a laboratory setting. They found that the process of selecting a product could be broken down into three stages:

(a) Orientation – This is where a screening of the products takes place without any fixations on a particular product. This stage helps in acquiring information about brand sizes, available brands and the physical layout.

(b) Evaluation – This is where consumers evaluated between two or three products and it forms the longest part of the entire process of purchasing. Direct comparisons take place between the two/three alternatives (gazing back and forth).

(c)  Verification – Similar to the previous stage, however the eye fixations remained shorter at this stage. This suggests that once the decision has been made, consumers still reevaluate their decision by confirming whether the brand selected in superior or best suited to their needs as compared to the alternatives.

This is a eye-movement map generated from a shelf scanning experiment in a supermarket –

Insights from such studies can be used to gain insights into how a consumer evaluates products on the crowded shelf. Note that the participant never looks at the top shelf and the bottom shelf. Perhaps if you are a college student on a shoestring budget, this is where you should look if you want to buy save some money.



Eye-tracking studies can be conducted on print advertisements to evaluate the effectiveness of advertisements. There are several insights that can be gained from this type of a study –

  • Attention spread of different elements of the ad
  • Flow of the eye movement
  • Average viewing time of the ad

Source: Tobii Case Studies

Print Ad Study for Prada – LG

The results obtained from the study conducted on the Prada – LG Print ad can help reveal a number of things on how consumers perceive the advertisement, such as –

On what parts of the ad did participants gaze?

How long did the participants gaze at a particular element?

In what order (flow) did the participants view the advertisement?

Drawbacks of Eye-Tracking Studies

Although eye-tracking technology may seem promising, it has some drawbacks, apart from the fact that college students cannot buy a pair of trackers for their in-house basement laboratory.

Eye-tracking studies are low on ecological validity. Most supermarket simulations created in the laboratory do not elicit behavior that may be displayed under natural settings. It is difficult to expect participants to behave and act normally the way they would while buying groceries, after making them wear a hefty pair of glasses and a helmet on their head. Study results may also get influenced due to demand awareness. Participants in an eye-tracker study may guess the hypothesis of the experiment and consciously behave in a way so as to support the hypothesis. For example, participants who are made to look at a search page on Google, may guess that the experiment is designed to test effectiveness of internet ads and may deliberately avoid looking at the right hand side of the page.

Eye-tracking devices need to improve their design to make it look as innocuous as possible. Devices that track eye movements but are not contraptions worn by the participant may perhaps help in increasing validity of such experiments.


Anders, G. (2001). Pilot’s Attention Allocation During Approach and Landing–Eye- and Head-Tracking Research in an A330 Full Flight Simulator.International Symposium on Aviation Psychology (ISAP). Columbus, OH.

Aula, A. & Rodden, K. (2009) Eye tracking studies: more than meets the eye.The Official Google Blog.

Hunziker, H. W. (1970). Visuelle Informationsaufnahme und Intelligenz: Eine Untersuchung über die Augenfixationen beim Problemlösen. Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Psychologie und ihre Anwendungen, 29, Nr 1/2. English version:http://www.learning-systems.ch/multimedia/forsch1e.htm

Pieters, R & Warlop, L. (1999). Visual Attention During Brand Choice: The Impact of Time Pressure and Task Motivation. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 16 (1), 1-17.

Russo, J. E. and F. Leclerc (1994). An eye-fixation analysis of choice processes for consumer nondurables. Journal of Consumer Research, 21 (2), 274-290.