When designing advertisements, creative directors often prepare mock ups of proposed designs to show to clients. Creative directors rely on their experience and training to prepare combinations of images and text that will hopefully engage readers. But they may not be able to articulate why their combination works or is better than another combination. Similarly, clients often accept or reject designs based on subjective and personal criteria. Is there a better way to judge the potential impact of an ad?

One method used by market researchers is eye tracking studies. This technique records a person’s eye position and movement when viewing visual media. You want the audience to be attracted to the image and headline which piques curiosity. Then they will be drawn into the text, and finally look at the company name, logo, tagline, and contact information.

The human eye and mind are remarkable devices. The human eye is not just a camera that records color and light. It also processes images before sending it to the brain. The eye is very slow at resolving an image. It takes about 1/20th of a second for the eye to generate an image to send to the brain. During that time, the eye must remain fixed on the point of interest, even if your body is in motion. This is called fixation. Then your eye moves quickly to the next point of interest using an action called saccade. During the saccade, your eye can’t create a good image, it is just a jittery blur. It doesn’t send this blurry image to the brain, it sends nothing. Yet you never notice that your entire visual life consists of a series of rapid still images with blackouts in between. In fact, that’s why movies and television (which consist of 24 or 30 still images a second) can fool you into thinking that there is constant motion.


Fixation and saccade. Image from Wikipedia

Eye tracking studies for advertising have been conducted for years, starting in the 1960s though as equipment improved and fell in price, the practice expanded. A new web service from 3M (Creativepro May 2010) called Visual Attention Service does not require actual consumer testing. Instead, this service uses a database of previous studies to predict what a person will look at and rate the effectiveness of the image and text in holding a person’s attention.


Visual Attention Service. Video from 3M

I’ve signed up as a user, but haven’t tried the service out myself yet. My guess is that the current tool is quite crude. But the concept makes sense and I can see that Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! would be interested. Anything that increases the effectiveness of advertising is valuable and worth a lot to advertisers, publishers, and design firms.

While researching this blog entry, I came across a study by Think Eye tracking, a market research firm in Berkshire, UK, that reports the hilarious eye tracking results of a guy and what he looks at while attending a speed dating event. I think what actually happened is that he was so embarrassed and self-conscious about his appearance while wearing the eye tracking video camera headset that he had to avert his eyes. Yeah, that’s it.

And speaking of research into speed dating, previous research had indicated that women are pickier than men when selecting who to meet again. Two psychologists at Univ. of Penn. found that among 2,650 participants at HurryDate, the average woman was chosen by 49% of the men but the average man was only chosen by 34% of the women. However, this result may be biased because at most speed dating events, the man moves from table to table while the woman remains seated. A study by two psychologists at Northwestern in Psych. Sci. Sep 2009 shows that the gender selectivity difference disappears if women are the ones who rotate and men sit. The act of approaching someone increased self-confidence and reduced selectivity. Research bias can be very subtle.

[Update: Fixed a broken link to VAS YouTube video.]

Focus groups are one of the many useful tools that market researchers can use to get qualitative feedback from customers. A focus group is an interview of multiple people conducted simultaneously. It is an excellent technique to quickly find opinions and issues. It also tests the impact of peer pressure on the acceptability of new concepts.

The group can consist of between five to 20 people and last from one to two hours, depending on the topics to be discussed and data to be collected. Usually, two people from the market research firm also participate. A moderator ensures that each participant is given a chance to speak, keeps the group on topic and on schedule, and makes sure each item on the agenda is covered. Another researcher takes notes, operates the audio and video recording equipment, and communicates with any client(s) who may be observing the focus group,

After the recent announcement by NBC to rearrange its evening broadcast schedule, both Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno (the talk show hosts whose shows are affected) stated that NBC ran extensive focus groups prior to the launch of their respective shows this past season. The focus group results indicated their shows would be successful. Hopefully, this clip on Hulu is not an example of the way the focus groups were run.

Note that focus groups can only provide qualitative data such as the appeal of Mr. Leno’s hosting style to viewers at 10:00 pm and of Mr. O’Brien’s style at 11:35 pm. Focus groups should not be used to generate quantitative estimates of data such as audience size or broadcast ratings, demographic profile of viewers, or advertising revenue. (That is, if 50% of focus group attendees say they would definitely watch Jay Leno at 10 pm, that does not mean that NBC should expect a 50% share of the viewing audience at 10 pm.)