In recent years, implicit methods have become popular among market researchers. We recognize the importance of accessing more automatic, effortless System 1 thinking to augment the learnings provided by more conscious, effortful, and biased, System 2 thinking of explicit measures.

One such implicit method, adapted from cognitive neuroscience, is eye tracking research. This methodology is usually used to detect where people are looking on a computer screen and to infer attention to and implicit preference for elements of a display. However, neuroscience research has taught us that not only do eye movements reflect visual attention, they also relate to memory. What does this mean for market researchers? Well, we can learn not only which visual elements of a product package or store aisle stand out the most for consumers right now, but also what stood out during their shopping trip last week or last month.

But first, the science! Neuroscience has shown that eye movements help both in the formation and in recollection of memories. In one study for example, people were asked to examine a face in one of two ways: 1) by focusing freely on any aspects of the face they wished, or 2) by focusing specifically on one point on the bridge of the nose. The research showed that during a later memory task, people could better recognize faces they had explored freely. And, while people examined the faces to see if they recognized them during the memory task, people made eye movements on both the freely viewed and restricted viewed faces. Together, these results suggested that eye movements are associated with both memory storage and recollection.

In another study, when people were asked to imagine a checkerboard they had examined previously, they replicated the pattern of eye movements they had made during the initial examination. In other words, people might unconsciously copy their eye movements from a past event in order to remember that event more accurately. These results were also replicated outside the laboratory where eye movements were shown to improve the recollection of real world memories.

Using eye movements as an index of memory performance is interesting from a market research point of view. We typically ask people to wear portable eye trackers while they’re shopping to understand where they’re looking during that shop. Marketers can get a sense of which aspect of the retail environment attracts the eyes, and thus people’s attention, the most. The next logical step would be to ask those same people to later visualize the store or shelf displays from memory. We could discover whether their memory gaze took the same shape as the original gaze and, thus, which aspects of the store were best remembered.

Eye tracking is also used to test where the eyes are naturally drawn to on packaging designs. This gives us a sense of which aspects of the packaging capture a consumer’s attention most effectively. Follow up research, in which people are asked to visualize from memory packages they’ve previously seen, would help us discover which features were actually most memorable.

In advertising research, eye tracking is used to assess which parts of a TV or print advertisement attract our gaze and whether the ad holds our attention. If people wore eye trackers while watching a televised sporting event, marketers could determine which advertisements displayed in the stadium or on player uniforms best captured people’s attention during the broadcast. A follow up test could then reveal whether people visualized those same elements from memory and, consequently, which features were actually memorable.

The added element of examining people’s eye movements during a memory task days or weeks after a shopping journey or after viewing an ad is key. It’s not enough to understand which features of a journey or ad stand out during one moment in time. Marketers need to understand which features stand out at a later date, thereby helping them to identify features that will positively affect repurchase rates, and the effectiveness of word of mouth recommendations.

If you’re curious to learn more about how eye-tracking can be used to improve the shopper journey at your retail outlet, please contact us. We’d love to chat about neuroscience and memory with you!


Ready to learn more? Download our Sklar Wilton Research Decision Wheel for a template to help you categorize decisions to ensure your research plans are focused on the right big areas. Or, learn how we helped our retail client refresh their brand and redesign their retail locations to be more relevant to younger consumers who weren’t familiar with their brand.