Where’s your focus?

Technology that reads our eye movements has made it possible to discover precisely how design influences our purchasing decisions. We brought our eyes (and ears) to Tobii, a world leader in the development of eye tracking.

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Imagine that you go into a shop. You want to buy laundry detergent and they don’t have your usual brand. Typical. Now you have to choose another. You want something environmentally sound and inexpensive. You scan the shelves for what’s on offer and take down a packet to put in your basket. And here’s the million dollar question: what made you choose that particular packet?

Because you have no previous experience of the new detergent, it was almost certainly the package’s design. But what element of the design was decisive? The importance of packaging design to purchasing decisions has been debated for almost a century. The problem with marketing surveys, as advertising guru David Ogilvy is claimed to have said, is that people don’t think how they feel, don’t say what they think and don’t do as they say. Our decisions are based largely on subconscious processes that we can’t detect. But what if we could find a back door into the subconscious? 

Tobii is a global leader in the development of technology for reading and interpreting eye movements: eye tracking.

Seven years ago the company set up Tobii Pro, a department that uses eye tracking for research.

The Swedish company Tobii is a global leader in the development of technology for reading and interpreting eye movements: eye tracking. The company was founded in 2001 by John Elvesjö, Mårten Skogö and Henrik Eskilsson. Today it has almost 800 employees in 14 countries and annual sales of over 100 million euro. At first the focus lay on developing hardware and software but over time the application of the technology has become increasingly important. Seven years ago the company set up a new department, Tobii Pro, which designs and interprets market surveys for customers like Unilever, Coca Cola, Oriflame and Facebook. The head office is in Danderyd, north of Stockholm: a shiny metallic office building right beside the E18 motorway. On three floors sit about 350 employees: programmers, algorithm experts, engineers, eye and vision experts, marketers, sales staff and lawyers. The office is colour coded for the company’s three departments: Tobii Tech, which develops technology to be integrated into other products, including in the gaming sector; Tobii Dynavox, which develops aids for communication and increased accessibility for people with functional variations; and Tobii Pro, which uses eye tracking for research purposes.

350 of the total of 800 Tobii employees work in the head office just north of Stockholm, Sweden.

We meet with Ali Farokhian, who is Global Business Manager at Tobii Pro Insight Research Services and leads Tobii Pro’s own research team.
“What’s important in studies of packaging design is to understand what we invest time in,” he says.

The complex art of seeing

Vision represents about 70 per cent of our sensory impressions and can easily dominate the other senses. When we see, our eyes move in rapid jumps – called saccades – between brief fixations. The only way to see while our eyes are in motion is to fixate on something that is moving. But when we need to gather information to take a decision, our gaze stops and lingers on what appears to be important. For researchers, our eye movements offer a window into the brain’s cognitive processes. There is a direct connection between what we look at and what governs our decisions.

“What do we fixate on?

Does our gaze return to the packaging?

Is it relevant to me as a consumer or am I using my autopilot when I’m looking?”

For brand owners it is important that their packaging design interrupts this autopilot. But it must be done in a way that agrees with the values that the customer associates with the product, or the risk is that it is not experienced as relevant. Another risk is that the design contains too many or too mutually contradictory elements that confuse the customer.

A classic example is the nappy advertisement with photo of a cute baby and a star containing information. In one version the baby is looking straight into the camera and stealing attention away from the message. In another version the baby is looking at the star and draws the viewer’s attention to it.

“Developing packaging can be an expensive process,” Ali says. “A lot can be gained if the customer finds the right product quickly.

“Eye tracking helps us to do studies at a very early stage of the design process, for instance by getting the study participants to look at pictures of various versions of the same packaging. Which icons do the customers look at in a specific product category? What message emerges from the design? How can we categorise such qualities as premiumness? By using eye tracking we can test both the packaging itself and the categorisation of what the packaging is supposed to communicate.”

“What do we fixate on? does our gaze return to the packaging?”

Ali Farokhian, Global Business Manager

When the brand owner has reached the point of having existing prototypes, it is time to do studies in the retail environment. The first aspect to be considered is the packaging’s ability to stand out: its prominence or in technical terms its “saliency”. This might involve strong colours and contrasts. This stage of the consumer’s gaze is called “preattention”. 

Then the consumer starts to place the packaging in relation to his or her own self and needs. This is when a purchasing decision begins to be made.

What we see depends very much on who we are. But some things are universal, Ali says.

“Faces attract our attention. We are drawn to other humans and seek eye contact because we are social beings. Strong colours and contrasts also attract everyone’s attention. But eyecatching elements can also ruin a packaging design.”

Elena, a colleague who moved here from Spain, comes in with a pair of eye tracking glasses in a bag. Photographer Jimmy and I are asked if we want to try them out. The plan is for us to go down to a couple of food vending machines and discover how we look at the products while pretending to choose our lunch. The eyeglasses are lightweight and fit well. I don’t bother to tighten the cord at the back of my neck until I discover that the equipment costs about 20,000 euro. From one of the sidepieces a cord runs down to a small device that I put in my jacket pocket. I am asked to look at a point to calibrate the glasses and then we are ready. The knowledge that everything I look at as of now will be recorded gives me a vague and slightly disturbing sense of being seen through. I make an effort to look straight into the eyes of anyone I talk to so my gaze does not stray. We head off to the vending machines and I am instructed to choose a healthy lunch.

1. 4 eye cameras. 2. Microphone. 3. Gyro and accelerometer. 4. Wide angle HD scene camera 1920x1080 at 25 fps 90 degrees 16:9. 5. 50 Hz. 6.Aluminium Grilamid plastic, stainless steel.

The quality of the results of a study depends on how well it is designed. There must be a clearly formulated purpose. The participants must be given a specific task connected to the product properties that the packaging must communicate, such as choosing a refreshing drink or a luxurious bar of chocolate. Ali says that sometimes the results are surprising.

“We did a study of packagings for sanitary napkins where the task was to choose the product that was the best value for money. In interviews afterwards, the participants said they had looked at the price. But in the images we could see they had actually not done so. Instead, they had looked at a blue colour on one of the packagings and in some way associated that blue colour with the low-price category.”

“Strong colours attract everyone's attention. Byt eye-catching elements can also ruin a packaging design.”

One way to extract more results from studies involving eye tracking is to combine them with measuring the participants’ emotional reactions with the aid of electrodermal activity (EDA) technology, which measures the skin’s ability to conduct electricity. This lets us study how visual impressions cause emotional responses. By extension, we can learn more about which colours and symbols create a desired response in a specific context.

“How do I expect that this drink’s refreshing taste will be manifested in the packaging?” Ali asks. “It’s about how well the packaging conveys the values that the brand owner wants to communicate.”

Back in the meeting room we watch my eye tracking film. It turns out that I needn’t have worried. The picture jumps unnervingly up and down because I unconsciously nod while I listen, but the marker moves obediently from face to face and back and forth between the products in the vending machine. My choice? Octopus sushi.

Eye tracking is already being used for many different purposes.

Alternative Communication: Eye trackers help people with mobility impairments to live more independently.

Training: Eye tracking is used to evaluate an individual’s reactions in simulations of complex situations, for example in driver training or sports contexts.

Safety: Eye trackers are used to warn when employees start showing signs of becoming tired.

Diagnosing: With the aid of eye tracking it is possible to discover functional variations such as autism in very young children.

Gaming: Eye tracking is used together with other input technologies such as a mouse or voice commands to create more intuitive gaming experiences that involve the user more.

Ask the professor

4 questions for Andrew Hurley, Associate Professor at Clemson University, South Carolina.

How groundbreaking is the eye tracking technology for packaging design?
– As an improvement over focus groups and traditional market research for development, it’s been a groundbreaking technology. For brands focused on pennies across packaging

options, eye tracking is an excellent tool for objective decision-making and understanding the ROI (Return On Investment) between substrates and embellishments.

What will it take before it’s commonplace to use eye tracking when developing a new product?
– I’d guess that nearly all of the global CPGs (Consumer Packaged Goods) use eye tracking in some fashion within their development processes. Brands that use eye tracking have a significant advantage.

What product categories are most inclined to use eye tracking?
– Packaging does not discriminate; understanding how shoppers buy is an important insight. Whether in retail or eComm, it is essential that brands understand how their customers interact with their (and competitors’) packaging.

What impact will eye tracking have on packaging design in the future?
– More consumer-centric designs. As consumers, we should have more direct packaging on the market – enabling easier identification of core differentiators and the ability to find products faster and to more efficiently select products that complement our needs.

Inspire contact

Charlotte Lagerwald
Iggesund Paperboard
Mobile: +46 73 077 05 59


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