What-I-spy can teach us about eye tracking

It is the half term holiday here in the UK and for many parents that means more car journeys in the rain and extra helpings of i-spy. I-spy – the game where one person stares out the window, finds something that is clearly visible but might not be immediately noticeable, and then says “I spy something beginning with X” for the other person to guess – is the ur-text of attention studies, providing the inspiration for and justification of eye tracking techniques. As often happens, we have as much to learn from our kids as we have to teach them.
Why is i-spy so important for eye tracking?
Firstly, it clearly demonstrates that just because you can see something doesn’t mean you will see something. The fun lies in finding something that is clearly visible but easily missed. A bit like ads, which are frequently viewable without being actually viewed. Thankfully, kids usually have enough taste to avoid clues like ‘I spy with my little eye something that is offering unbeatable savings if you act soon’.
Secondly, it shows that attention is connected to meaning. Our eyes are not video cameras, taking in everything in the visual field.  Instead they search for meaning (‘…something beginning with X’). Now, most of this time, the ‘meaning’ we mean is not necessarily semantic. We scan a scene for danger, or points of interest, and some of these points of interest may contain words and other semantic markers. But, in a sense, meaning goes out, through our eyes, rather than comes in, from the world. We see what we want to see. And advertising is rarely what we want to see. As the great Howard Luck Gossage put it, the real fact of the matter is that people don’t read ads. They read what they want to read, and sometimes it’s an ad.
Thirdly, i-spy is about empathy. It teaches kids to see through the eyes of others, imagining how someone else would see a scene, what they would or wouldn’t notice, and how they would or wouldn’t categorise it alphabetically. At the start of the holiday, kids are spying something beginning with C for a cat. By the end of the holiday, conscious of how the game is more fun if they make the clues more oblique, they are spying F for feline.
This question of empathy is important because as marketers we rarely make enough of an effort to ‘see through our customer’s eyes’. We develop ads that we think would be interesting or motivating but forget how strange and unusual our jobs make us. For instance, we are paid to be interested in advertising in general and our own advertising in particular. Of course we’re interested in our advertising: our mortgage payments depend on it. Our customers have less of a financial incentive to notice and engage with our creations. What must it be like not to care about the ‘unbeatable savings available if you act soon’? Eye tracking can help marketers understand the indifference most people have to most marketing – and what does genuinely capture the imagination.
So, next time you find yourself searching a scene, questioning if there really is something beginning with ‘Q’ out there, thank your child for an object lesson in the basics of eye tracking research. And then get in touch with us to learn even more.