Design Measurment Metrics

26 Aug 2009|Darrel Rhea

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just tap into the body’s physical responses to design by leveraging the best technology, software and science? We could remove all the messy, subjective and mysterious parts of understanding how people are influenced by aesthetics.

It has long been a promise of science fiction that computers will be able to read our minds. It is also an implied promise from a range of physiological measurement techniques currently being applied to marketing problems. Let’s look specifically at eye tracking and assess its utility in measuring packaging effectiveness.

First, eye tracking technology is just a technology. It is not inherently good or bad, it’s a tool. Tools can be used for a variety of things but they are better at performing some tasks than others. Yes, a socket wrench can be used as a hammer, but it isn’t optimized for that application. In my experience, eye tracking is really useful and effective when applied to a number of areas like assessing outdoor advertising, signage, web applications, and certain kinds of print advertising. But I’m not a big fan of its use in packaging. Here are some thoughts about what aspects of packaging effectiveness are worth measuring, and why eye tracking is a tool that can be applied, but isn’t optimal…

Our highest priorities in packaging research are the ability of the package to reinforce the brand positioning (or communicate the core attributes of the brand), and the degree to which the package gestalt motivates people to purchase. These are psychological measures and correlate most strongly with marketplace success.

It is critical that these measures are tested with indirect methods where consumers are not aware that the package is the subject of interest, and where no direct questioning is made about the packaging. Any packaging research that ignores the phenomena of “sensation transference” is flawed.

Visibility (or invasiveness) is the probably the least important metric – not because we don’t think packages don’t need to be seen, but because visibility is the easiest aspect of a package to evaluate subjectively. After decades of testing visibility using physiological measurements, we have learned that it is extremely rare that we can not accurately predict the outcome. Any graphic design professional should be able to assess its invasiveness. While physiological measures (like t-scopes and eye trackers) can report this, it isn’t a good research value. Spend your marketing budget improving the design, not on proving the obvious.

Visibility is always relative to the surrounding environment. A different competitive shelf set can completely change visibility scores. A subtle simple package when tested in the absolute can appear recessive. The same package can stand out when surrounded by packages that are screaming for attention. Most testing methods try to make up for this effect by order rotation, but because of the complexity of the realities of the varied retail environments, testing is always a poor approximation and is compromised.

Another measure is focal point sequence (documenting the order in which specific design elements are viewed). While this sounds important, good packaging only has a handful of elements on any face, and they should be designed to be seen in a specific sequence. Again, subjective evaluations by packaging professionals prove quite accurate. If there isn’t a clear sequence, you should be redesigning the package, not doing an expensive form of research. Also, most packages are viewed at a distance where they are seen as a gestalt, where the read-through of elements isn’t a major factor. In fact, they tend to get considered for only a second or two. Response to them is emotional not rational. There might be a need to confirm the product type, ingredient, or flavor, but that happens in a flash.

Eye tracking is used in an attempt to measure the sequence. However, physiological measures that track the eyes do just that – they track the eyes. They do not measure cognition (or “seeing”). The linkage between point of gaze and cognition is implied but never revealed or proven. If you have ever looked for your keys on your desk for a few minutes and not seen them right in front of you, you have experienced this difference. Eye tracking data would have concluded that you looked at these several times, that they attracted your attention and held your gaze. But even though you looked at them, there was no cognition. You did not “see” them, despite what the physiological data might imply.

While the promise of physiological measurements revealing our thoughts is alluring, the reality is they don’t — yet. Someday we’ll be able to say with confidence that your pupils are dilating because you are love what you are seeing — rather than hating what you are seeing. For now we only know you are aroused, but it could be from the vibrating phone in your packet rather than the visual stimuli you are being directed to look at in a test. For now, psychological measurements have the great utility for understanding human response to packaging.

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