Get into the minds of your audience. That must be the goal of anyone trying to communicate a message. A recent technological development does not quite promise this, but it does provide the print creative with a significant step forward: it gets behind readers' eyes.
Eyetrack is a form of mobile eye technology that owes its development largely to the air-defence industry. It arrived at the start of the 90s and uses a head-mounted camera to record eye movement over fractions of a second. The equipment has evolved from a device that resembled a deep-sea diver's helmet to a headset that does not impede view and allows full head and body movement. The results are more qualitative than quantitative and open to some degree of interpretation; they do, however, offer the print creative a highly useful set of guiding principles based on realistic user situations.
Two distinct headsets have been used in our research. The first measures what could be termed "fixed" use, such as reading while seated at a table.
The second uses a more lightweight, portable headset to record how people read while on the move. Great care has been taken to disguise motive; respondents are typically told that they will be monitored while watching TV and are asked to wait in a room containing various newspapers, where the real action takes place.
From a newspaper perspective, this approach offers one crucial difference from the well-worn path of focus groups: it can jump the hurdle of "claimed behaviour". Typically, newspaper research relies on asking people to remember what they read, which introduces potentially confounding variables such as peer pressure. Eyetrack simply records what they read and how they read it.
The Times is the first newspaper in Britain to adopt this approach, although the use of Eyetrack is growing in the UK. The Football Association has bought into the technology for training purposes and the Rugby Football Union, golfers and Olympic marksmen are all benefiting from the insight Eyetrack can provide.
Such cutting-edge technology seems tailor-made to today's combative newspaper industry. Although many of the findings are considered unsurprising, others are a revelation.
What Eyetrack generally shows is that readers scan pages quickly to find items of interest. But different people will read a newspaper in different ways, some starting at the front, some at the back and others heading straight for certain sections, such as the business pages. This tells the designer that clear signposting sparks interest and aids navigation.
Big is good. Large advertising sizes hold the reader's attention and are harder to ignore. The eye is more frequently drawn to the top of the page, confirming that the space at the top of the layout is precious.
The position of branding elements follows a similar pattern; the higher up the page, the more likely the eye is to process it. And it is at this point that certain decisions come into play. Is brand establishment the prime objective or can this space be used better? What exactly is the message of the ad? And is a brand element likely to be recognised quickly enough, given that a reader takes 0.1 seconds on average to process a logo? If the purpose of the ad is to convey a special offer, then placing that offer as close to the top of the layout canvas as possible, with branding below, would perhaps be the most effective approach.
Eyetrack gives us a very powerful set of pointers, but some types of behaviour are much stronger than others. One highly consistent finding is that readers' eyes follow the following sequence: image, largest heading, content. We ignore this at our peril.
So which ads tested successfully? Different ads succeed, it seems to me, for different reasons. The FlyBe work performed well because of its punchy heading at the very top of the ad, reversed out of black and placed in the news section - an environment that lacks such typographic devices in the quality market. Suzuki took a half-page horizontal ad to promote its Vitara model and used a single photograph across both pages to strengthen each side visually and to increase the impact - the colour helped, too.
Perhaps most interesting was the BT ad, which combined a coloured oval and a cutout product shot in the top right-hand corner of the page. The use of devices that are unusual in a particular editorial environment - shapes with curved edges, cutouts - contributed to the ad's success, providing enough novelty to attract the eyes of readers. People processed the page's editorial content, briefly registering the top corner of the ad as they turned the page, then flicking back to process the ad content.
This raises the question of when an ad is actually processed. If there is a turn-return reflex, as the BT instance suggests (which typically occurs after editorial processing), the ad creative must consider the elements that inhabit the space near the end of any editorial matter. In this example, the dynamic combination of colour, shape and cutout image complemented the editorial matter, sitting at the point on the page where the eye has scanned body text and come to its endpoint, arousing curiosity in the reader by providing a novel stimulus.
Where an ad sits in the context of the editorial is perhaps the area where Eyetrack yields the most fascinating results. It has been a long-held belief that ads on the right-hand page get noticed more and, sure enough, the eyes of people reading from front to back tend to land on the right-hand side of the spread. The eyes of those reading from the back, however, are clearly seen to land on the left-hand side of the spread. In broad terms, the implication is unambiguous - if you are placing an ad in the sport section, left seems to be best.
Of course, creatives and designers, with their skills and wealth of experience, will produce ad layouts that use various elements to convey a message effectively. Eyetrack cannot do this, which is good news for the creative job market. What it can do is provide solid cues based on real behaviour.
As newspapers offer increased flexibility and choice, the battle for readers' attention intensifies. Choose your research weapon - Sopwith Camel or Stealth Bomber?
- Tomaso Capuano is the art director of new projects at The Times.