+44(0) 1604 879 776

The Complexity Behind a Fleeting Glance

Determining the Usefulness of Eye-tracking in Design and Marketing

You cannot move your eyes without moving your attention, but you can move your attention without moving your eyes. These abilities are so closely linked, that as soon as you focus your attention on something else, the eyes want to follow in harmony with that thought.

In and Out of Focus

When we want to refine our understanding of marketing and consumer behaviour, the best analytical abilities result from combining research methods. It is not very effective just to shout about and show your product or service, trying to catch the eyes of the consumer. It’s their attention that you need, and only with that do you have a chance of making an impact, whether positive or negative. To do that you need to aspire to their conscious thought stream, because all information, be it visual input or otherwise, is automatically processed below the threshold of consciousness and filtered depending on whether or not we need to pay attention, before it is permitted into conscious thought. Our ability to filter information and focus directly on something of importance helps to prevent overstimulation and cognitive overload. Our conscious is therefore key to taking action.

Automatic Processing and False Self-Reporting

You are in your kitchen, about to sit down to eat food, but you realise you want the pepper. So you go to the cupboard, opening it wide, and you look. You check the entire cupboard, each shelf time and again, becoming more impatient as you curse somebody for not putting it back where it belongs. Getting fed up you look around the room some more before giving up and sitting down to eat without it. When company joins you in the kitchen you tell them that you can’t find the pepper, but you want it for your meal. They help to find it, going to the first cupboard you looked in, and there it is. It was never hiding from you. You wonder why you didn’t see it, but in fact, you stared right at it. You just weren’t aware because it wasn’t brought to your conscious attention. You’d already filtered it out.

A marketing fly on the wall would see you examining the cupboards, but taking no action and returning to what you were doing – eating your meal. Then it would see the second person examining the cupboards and taking action by obtaining the pepper.

 ‘Inefficacy’, noun: Lack of Power to Produce a Desired Effect

This is an example of why opting only for consumer self-report in research methods can be inaccurate and misleading. Effective research into user experience needs to encompass what the user sees, what they say they see and how they perceive what they see.

Eye-tracking documents our automatic visual processing by capturing the unconscious movements the eye makes before the data is filtered into or away from conscious thought. This means the method does not rely on self-report but instead can be combined with it, to give real value and accuracy to the resulting insights.

The Centre of Attention

The mechanism behind our ability to process information from what we see is called the fixation-saccade-fixation cycle. Our direct line of sight fixates on a number of points within this central field of vision (the foveal vision), shifting about twenty-five times per second, according to what catches our attention or interests us, i.e. colours, shapes or objects. 6% of our vision falls into this region and 94% falls into our peripheral region, which produces a blurred image lacking in detail in order to detect significant movement or contrast.

When something has the power to jump out at us or grab our attention out of nowhere, this is likely due to it being in great contrast to its background, such as a flickering movement, or that it has meaning for us, such as hearing the sound of our name amongst the auditory blur of a crowd.

The research evidence for this extends to any familiar scene you could think of. On train station platforms, where a crowd of people are walking towards us, we won’t give this conscious attention in favour of a stationary piece of luggage on the ground amidst the flurry. We expect these oncoming pedestrians to walk straight past us to get to where they are headed, and that means nothing to us in normal circumstances. ‘The three elements that are most likely to merit our conscious attention are conspicuousness, meaning and expectations – pedestrians have no meaning, do not stand out in a crowd and we expect them to walk past without consequence to us’.

Now if we relate this to how we peruse email marketing, in fact people scan this very quickly, giving up their attention only to initial content and headlines.

Selective Reality

Importantly for design, most human and digital interaction is visual; this data around us is used to construct our experience. If we look up into the sky, we see that the sun is moving, that we are still. This influences our reality because the facts appear to be that the earth is still and all objects revolve around it. This must be the truth because it is what we see.

Eye-tracking is not used to examine context or opinion, but to analyse and measure our unconscious fixations (where we look and how long for), in order to determine how visual design affects our internal reality of what we see, with a specific interest in finding out whether visual input receives attention or ignorance.

Appealing to Intuition For Usability

There is much interest and curiosity surrounding the complexity of how our eyes and brainwaves work in sync with each other. It is suggested that we tap into our innate instincts to perform tasks such as scanning results on search engines and visualising our prey – the information – to help it stand out when it does appear, i.e. we mentally conjure up the shape of a word or an image to enable it to stand out better when it does make an appearance.

These insights are especially important in today’s world where we can easily mute or skip over advertisement content. If you want attention, you have to ask for it cleverly – if it isn’t emotive and intuitive, it isn’t going to get through.

Taking the approach into the context of web design, a user maintains their focus on a page, their ‘eyes glued to the screen’. With eyesight contained to the source of the marketing material, usually vision, focus and where the pointer lingers are harmonised, giving us the best possibility of being able to make attention an observable variable, making for a high validity testing method.

It’s been shown that in effect we fail to see commonplace banner ads or content that is formatted in a way that resembles them. With an intuitive sense of what predictable web content constitutes, we auto-process the shape, placement and character of this content to determine what it is and whether it is useful to us. Hence, the goal of any marketing material should be to get through to the conscious thought stream by ensuring the most crucial information commands attention. We can use the data from measuring location and duration of fixations to pitch against data collected from self-report methods, to know whether a design is succeeding or not. Evidently, we do not want the combined data to reveal that users saw some visual content but they said they did not, or that they saw something at the wrong time, i.e. a Call To Action at the beginning of a task, because this means the design has failed to function as intended.

This digital intuition is what causes an immediate output response when presented with a new webpage or interface. Along with the underlying assessment of the dominant visual elements within the content, we have a tendency toward the left side of any screen or interface, and will typically focus our attention in an ‘F’ shape (the reason why typical navigation bar placement is left-aligned). Therefore, subtle changes in design can have a great impact on our visual behaviour. We even have fixation patterns that signify either confusion and ambiguity, or smooth, cohesive understanding. An eye tracking study by Matteo Penzo discovered that when designing an application form for a webpage, label placement in relation to the input field should be top-aligned and the label written in standard-weight font. This means the user will have to use less cognitive effort, in addition to just one fixation being needed to understand and navigate each element of the form.

Attention + Emotion = Impact

If you can get attention and then relate to emotions, you in turn get more attention as the audience or user will take time to read the extent of the content. If they are then guided effectively to take action afterwards, these leads are a better quality.

“People generally develop pleasure, interest and symbolic meaning from photographs” (Lang et al. 1993; Lin, Morgan, and Coble 2013).

Emotive imagery helps to sustain attention and is the best way to demonstrate your concept and answer questions users might have in their minds. We process images faster than text, so a good starting point would be to share what matters most in pictures instead of words, in addition to livening up uninteresting but important details. If we see affective imagery and recognise its concept we are more likely to look for the messaging for more information. By leading people to their memories of similar experiences they’ve had, we present them with a meaning and invoke their associated emotion.

It has also been suggested we experience a reward response when we recognise this type of stimulus, but if there’s no concept recognition we do not experience that reward. Therefore, partnering a highly meaningful visual with a rich context will lead to the greatest possibility for engagement and impact. Relevancy is also important – the needs of your audience need to match the needs of your offering or content. On the contrary, when we come across something that is novel to us, this increases our attention because we have a constant innate desire to master the unknown by understanding, and then move on to find something else to master. In this way a sense of novelty can be combined with these factors, to promote information transmission.

Let’s make it personal

Instinctively, people notice people, specifically their eyes. We either want to connect with others through direct eye contact or we want to look at what they’re looking at. This means we can use eyes to draw and guide attention. Below is an example of a heat-map produced to correspond with eye tracking data that shows where people’s fixations occurred in this instance – the warmer the colour the longer the duration of focus. It is clear to see that we are drawn to study and follow another person’s gaze.

We can also use subtle pointers to literally point in the direction of a specific area of content. In the map, the baby’s chin points toward a part of the copy, guiding the eye to linger there too. When you want to make it personal, use direct eye contact. When you want to drive awareness, guide the eye to where their direction of focus should be, e.g. the product/content.

Staying Current

Creative teams can make use of accessible and affordable eye-tracking technology to test the functionality of all print and digital media, from out of home advertising to web content, and complement it with advanced marketing knowledge and ability to optimise design for mobile screen sizes, to ensure any marketing material has the intended reach and effect, maximising persuasive power and potential for brand-recall.

The research undertaken using eye tracking as a method offers some valuable insights to take into account when designing these marketing materials. By using these insights and exploring the full potential, the businesses and brands of today can engage in more meaningful marketing strategies that show how they make their customers lives better, liven up the uninteresting but important details and guide the eyes to the action, with a better chance of making that connection.


  1. ‘Evaluating the Usability of Search Forms Using Eyetracking: A Practical Approach’ by Matteo Penzo, July 2006: http://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2006/07/label-placement-in-forms.php
  2. 8 Things That Grab and Hold Website Visitor’s Attention:
  3. Eye tracking and Web Usability – A Good Fit?:
  4. Eye Tracking Heat-maps:
  5. 7 Marketing Lessons from Eye Tracking Studies:
  6. How Does Eye Tracking Detect the Object of Visual Attention?:
  7. Inattention Blindness and Conspicuity:
  8. Exploring the Tendency to Imitate Another Individual’s Gaze:
  9. Wired for Information: A Brain Built to Google:
  10. The Same Parts of the Brain Move Eyes and Shift Attention:
  11. Eye-catching Advertising That Will Change the Way You Think:
  12. An Eye-Tracking Study of Tourism Photo Stimuli: