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What is eye-tracking and how does it work?

Our eyes are our first tool for exploring the world and assessing decisions and behaviour: especially in the modern, hyper-digital society we live in, sight is the sense we use most to navigate and make decisions at all times, including purchases. This is why it is important to observe what really catches our eye, to establish which visual stimuli are able to capture the attention of consumers and motivate the purchase of products or services. Neuromarketing enables us to do this thanks to one of its best-known tools: eye-tracking.

eye tracking

What is eye-tracking and how does it work?

Eye-tracking is a technique that uses a tool, the eye-tracker, to observe and record pupil dilation and contraction, the behaviour of the eye during vision, helping us to determine where, what and for how long a visual input is observed.

The eye-tracker is a device similar to a pair of spectacles, which allows us to follow and track the eye movements of a person in response to a given stimulus. Neuromarketing can use this tool to study how consumers behave and which salient features catch their eye.

There are two types:

  • The static eye-tracker: this device is less dynamic than the one we will see next. It uses a screen to display images, a webcam which detects the movements of the person observing the images and an infrared bar which intercepts the eye movements. It is normally used to study people’s visual behaviour in response to videos, websites or digital campaigns, tracking the path of their visual attention on the screen.


  • The dynamic eye-tracker: in its most modern version, it consists of portable goggles, equipped with infrared light and a camera, which record what is observed while the person is moving in a given space. Thanks to this version, it is possible, for example, to understand how a potential consumer explores a shelf in front of them and which products they look at. This neuromarketing tool is also used to assess the effectiveness of videos, packaging, ads, websites and product placement.
eye tracking

How do we really observe the world?


Not everything that enters our line of sight actually enters the visual focus for analysis by the brain.

When we look at something, our eyes usually move very quickly, alternating between what we call saccades, almost imperceptible movements lasting tenths of a second, and pauses, moments when our gaze fixates on a particular stimulus.

In actual fact, only 8% of what enters our field of vision is then captured by the fovea, the central and most sensitive part of the retina, which is the part of our eye that sees clearly and is responsible for receiving the most significant visual input to send to the brain.

At this point, it is the brain’s job, or more precisely that of the occipital lobe, to interpret, assemble and make sense of the images it receives.

Why is it important to observe the gaze of consumers?


In addition to eye movements, another parameter that can be observed using eye-tracking is the change in pupil size: an automatic reaction closely linked to our attention and unconscious emotional response to a stimulus.

Photo by Inggrid Koe on Unsplash

Pupil dilation, as proven by extensive neuroscientific research, indicates a high rate of interest and inclination towards a given stimulus; pupil contraction, on the other hand, emphasises aversion to and lack of interest in an input.

As already mentioned, our attention is very limited and highly selective, and pupil dilation can help us understand which elements, designs and stimuli are able to really interest and engage people in a profound and emotional way. Recording and analysing eye behaviour while shopping in a supermarket or scrolling through the pages of a website, sheds light on the automatic and unconscious cognitive processes at work when people make a decision to purchase something.

Bottom-up and top-down observation


When we observe the world around us, our limited and selective attention guides our eye movements according to two main types of factors that work in synergy to analyse space quickly and effectively:

“bottom-up” factors, the salient features that capture our brain. Examples include colour, shape, size and brightness.

“top-down” factors, determined by the consumer’s needs and expectations. These include memory, engagement, attitudes, emotions and goals.

How does the visual scanning process work?


The visual scanning process that takes place when choosing a product, whether in store or on an e-commerce platform, can be divided into three phases:

orientation: a general exploratory overview of the products on display;
assessment: the longest phase, consisting of the comparison of alternatives. This is where the decision-making process begins;
verification: further examination of the chosen brand. Consumers spend up to 54% more time observing and inspecting the product they will ultimately choose.

These phases are influenced by a number of contextual factors, such as the amount of time available to complete the purchase, or the consumer’s mood when they are assessing the purchase. When, for example, the consumer feels that they do not have enough time, the acquisition of information is faster and the time the eyes fixate on the stimulus is reduced.

eye tracking

Why use eye-tracking?


These explanations help to clarify the usefulness and importance of eye tracking in detecting the most significant eye movements, those that are most useful in assessing what really captures people’s attention, both at the point of sale and digitally.

It is a tool that emphasises the importance of incorporating neuromarketing analysis into “traditional” research methods, which are only capable of observing people’s explicit and rational response to stimuli, without really shedding light on the instinctive, emotional and unconscious processes at work, which motivate decisions and behaviour.