Fabian Stelzer, EyeQuant's CEO, believes there's a science to how we view the Web. Whether on desktops or on mobile, whether we're male or female, young or old, our eyes will be drawn to certain common elements of web design— a combination of contrasts, locations, contours and colors. Stelzer's also sure of something else: Knowing what these common elements are, and integrating them into websites, mean ecommerce sites can snag hesitant buyers and magazines can convince readers to click on articles.
The German entrepreneur, who was previously featured in Fast Company in 2011, runs a company that counts Barnes & Noble, eBay, Google, and Nokia among its clients. EyeQuant uses algorithms based on eyetracking studies and research to evaluate web sites. Using algorithms derived from the movement of the human eye while looking at computer screens and at real-life commodities such as food and retail items, the company claims they can predict where a viewer's attention will go when they load a web site.
Earlier in October, EyeQuant announced a $650,000 funding round that, though modest by the standards of the tech world, is admirable for a neuroscience marketing startup. While EyeQuant isn't the only company working in the space (there are several competitors such as 3M's Visual Attention Service and ad-oriented services such as RealEyes), EyeQuant is one of the best funded. Companies, in exchange for submitting an email address and contact information to the company's marketers, can receive from EyeQuant almost immediate evaluations of one of their site's URLs .
Stelzer told me that the two main maps his company provides cover perception and attention. For EyeQuant's purposes, perception maps predict what content users' eyes will gravitate towards within three seconds of loading a page. Meanwhile, there's the second metric of attention: The content users will find the most and least visually appealing.
The slide show at the top of this story shows some examples of both, culled from both the company's clients and some of the Web's best-known brands.
In the case of Google, users' eyes gravitate towards a logo, which then steers them towards the main event—the search box.
The eyes of Amazon users veer towards the center of the screen and clearly identifiable clusters of graphics and boldfaced text. This is the sort of insight marketers want to know in order to optimize sales.
In the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a paper was published using EyeQuant findings (two of the study's three authors, Milica Mormann and Christof Koch, are affiliated with the company). The paper, which centered on a research project that conducted eye-tracking studies on several food items, offered several new mathematical models regarding the tug-of-war between the visual appeal of items (or web sites) versus how much they cost to purchase. The study also offers some empirical backing for EyeQuant's claims, and gives the company new weaponry to help it attract potential clients through a set of new algorithms.
For example: In the study, students at Caltech had their eye movements measured while staring at a grid of snack food items. The students' eye movements were then compared with the snack food that they chose to eat after they finished viewing the grid. Results extrapolated from the snack food observations were integrated into computational models of the eye's movements. Stelzer said in an email that the authors reported an area under the curve of .93, where 1 marks a perfect prediction. That means their mathematical model is usable and that they could replicate their findings.
Stelzer told me that one of the main takeaways from the study was the importance of visual impact. "Making sure that the human eye is drawn towards a product through its design alone remains an important factor in sales, but this is 100% context dependent. Put simply, if everyone's dressed in red, being green wins."
He also said the study showed EyeQuant's product, which uses computerized models of eye-tracking instead of actually eye-tracking every user, could be used by companies to evaluate their web sites as a substitute for expensive internal corporate studies.
But ecommerce isn't the only sector EyeQuant is looking at for applying neuroscience to web design. Search engines (as in Google's case above) are another hot area. Stetzer noted that search engines could someday understand which sites are less relevant than others—for example, burying sites that feature distracting advertising which subconsciously prevents users from finding the information they came to the site for. Meanwhile, the company is using some of that $650,000 funding round to branch into eye-tracking research for mobile platforms. He also mentioned EyeQuant's interest in researching applications for grocery shelves.
The ultimate Holy Grail for eye-tracking companies of all kinds is brick-and-mortar retail. But unlike computer screens, where your eyes are inevitably fixated on the monitor, eye tracking in real life adds all sorts of challenges. In Stetzer's words, "On laptops, screens are in a seated position and you're staring at them straight ahead. Mobile is more difficult, but it's similar. Retail is much more different, because of angles, the physical size of customers—whether they are large or whether they are small—and if they're freely roaming around supermarkets. It's less than perfect incremental data."
With that said, you can probably expect that someday the same neuroscience research being used to assemble your home page will help assemble the perfect aisle at your local Target or Macy's store.
[Images courtesy of Eyequant]