Airport eye-tracking offers insights on how people view screens

July 15, 2009 by Dave Haynes

What seems like a very long time ago, well seven years ago, I was force-marching my way most days through the underground walkway system in downtown Toronto, on the way to a consulting gig I did for about two years. I started thinking about what a digital screen network might look like in these long, low corridors that were absolutely teeming with business people.

A long, cascading set of screens seemed to make the most sense, given that people were walking along and were not going to stop to view the screens but glance and absorb as they made their way to the office or to subway and rail stations at day’s end.

What came out of that was a company I founded called Concourse Media, which ran a relative cascade of screens along the ways. I long since left that gig, but the screens are still there and operating, and I still wonder about how people actually engage with that sort of thing. 

It’s likely, based on new research, that the visual attention of these people is fleeting, their eyes flitting here and there as they go, as opposed to locking on. 

Image from The Moodie Report 

A report by JC Decaux, which I think has been detailed in a few publications and blogs already, took a very scientific, technological look at how people wandering through an airport look at all the screens and signs as they move along. Bank-centric DS consultancy John Ryan, through its blog, has a good run-down on the findings, and there is a link to a presentation version of the study highlights. (Nice app, by the way, that marries a PDF viewer thingdoodle with embedded video that pops quickly to the screen)

From the blog post:

This study — which had test subjects walk through an airport terminal wearing eyeglasses that monitored their field of vision and precise point of focus — actually demonstrates that people do not absorb the sights around them in any seemingly rational order. In fact, their eyes dart about somewhat haphazardly, flitting and resting for just fractions of a second on faces, moving people and objects and, yes, digital signage. This is called saccadic viewing.

Indeed, the Eyetracker study gives new ammo to those who have advocated for the ability of digital signage to capture the attention of people in indoor environments. The test subjects registered 1,985 unique screen views (a view was measured as 0.3 seconds). Divided by the 20 test subjects, that comes out to nearly 100 impacts per individual. Given that there were only 89 screens in the test environment, we can conclude that some subjects viewed the same screen more than once.

Interesting stuff, mostly because I think it hammers home the notion that visuals in these environments have to be SO carefully considered. With eyes flitting here, there and evrywhere in a media environment where audience motion is the norm, even a five or six second spot may be too long to make an impression, never mind a 15. 

The report highlights go into some detail about the importance of color, with red being the optimal choice to grab attention.

If you are in network planning or content development for this space. take a few minutes and have a look. I was speaking with an industry friend the other day and he was talking about how it was sad that so many companies were developing really interesting market information, but were refusing to share it around.

JC Decaux should be commended for making this available, and it would be great if more companies came to grips with the reality that sharing research will rarely hurt a company’s competitive position but will almost always help strengthen the overall industry (which then helps the research’s originators).

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