Apple of Our Eye: iPhone/iPad Win Staring Contests

I am a sucker for a good eye-tracking study. Give me a heat map showing what and in what order and for how long people look at items on a screen, and I see a window into a mode of behavior that almost always reveals something of value.

“Eyes don’t lie,” quips Jeff Bander, Senior Vice President, Client Relations, EyeTrackshop. Understandably, that is the adage that reigns over a metrics group devoted to the value of the gaze. They have pioneered a cheap and highly scalable way to conduct eye-tracking studies with hundreds of people from their own desks using simple Webcams. This is the kind of work that can be invaluable in determining things like the effectiveness of Web site design or ad creative.

But as the holiday gadget giving-and-getting season heats up, the company turned its gaze to the electronics market -- especially the competition between smartphone and tablet makers to unseat Apple from its  haloed spot in consumers’ minds.

Samsung, HTC, Motorola, maybe even Amazon -- good luck with that.

EyeTrackShop tried to test the relative visual allure of major smart phones and tablets by showing 200 users a set of six competing smartphones to track their gaze. They ran a similar test with five tablet images on another 200 subjects. In the set of smartphones, which included the Google Nexus S, the Samsung Galaxy II and the HTC EVO as well as a Motorola Photon “People spent 42% longer looking at the iPhone,” reports Bander. It is not likely that the iPhone favorability comes strictly from that model.

It's iconic status, since at first glance there is little visible difference among the phones. In fact in the gaze stats I saw, the most revealing metrics showed how eyes tracked across the six models. The Motorola was situated at top center where the eye would likely start, but in fact most viewers started with the iPhone in the top left position and them moved clockwise. What was most striking was how much longer the viewers spent with the iPhone -- 2.3 seconds, far ahead of the 1.7 and 1.8 seconds spent on the Motorola Photon and the Samsung Epic Touch, even though those two latter phones were visually more detailed and busier.

On the tablet side, things were a bit less lopsided, as consumer fascination with the new Amazon Kindle Fire (top center in that configuration) kept the gaze for the same amount of time as the iPad, 2.4 seconds. Both of these tablets were looked at 138% longer than average. The Kindle Fire enjoyed an unfair advantage in that it was the only product image where the name of the product was clearly visible in the cluster of tablets. Still, users were drawn to the Apple competitors.

On follow-up user surveys the consumers were quick to say they preferred the look of Apple, with 138% more respondents finding the iPhone visually appealing than did the other models. Likewise 73% more respondents than the rest of the field found the iPad more visually appealing.

To be sure this was more of a cursory study of how people responded to visuals. Bander admits that a rigorous approach would have done multiple passes at consumers with randomized visuals to see which device consistently attracted a gaze. Also, how consumers follow through once they have the phones in hand for deeper exploration is another matter. Quibbles over method aside, however, the degree of difference in attractiveness between Apple products and almost any of the competition is striking. The fact that the only contender for attention, the Amazon Kindle Fire, actually had to have the product name on it, with a flame burning as well, to match the iPad's visual allure, should be of some comfort to Amazon but even more to Apple.

While it may be mildly creepy to acknowledge, Apple has succeeded in training most consumers’ eyes to pick out their products from a line up of the usual suspects. That’s is not just good branding. That is branding that affects behaviors.



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