Exploring Perception of Food Packages with Rule Developing Experimentation and Eye Tracking
- Feb 3, 2010
Tõnis Mets acknowledges the support offered by the Estonian Ministry of Education’s project SF 0180037s08.
In this article, we present an interesting new approach to analyzing consumer perception of food packaging. By combining the eye tracking and Rule Developing Experimentation methodologies, the researcher and the designer can discover links between what the researcher can do to the stimulus by means of a systematic design, how the eye tracks these changes, and how study participants might respond.
RDE and the Need for Eye Tracking
In the last decades, innovation and advances in technology have radically altered the food packaging industry, revolutionizing the four main functions of packaging: containment, protection, convenience, and communication.  The main purposes of food packaging have always been to provide safe and convenient storage for the food, protect it from spoilage and pests, and facilitate easy transportation. The aesthetic side of mainstream food wrapping came only in the last 200 years,  with many of the packages beautified by top designers, evolving these advances from technology into art. A product must figuratively "jump out" at the consumer in order for the consumer to pick it out from the shelf, where it competes with many other offerings. Experts advise that the graphics designer should be as bold as package configuration, space, and stacking position allowusing lively, persuasive colors; striking typefaces; and prominent, creative photography or illustrations.  But this approach has all too frequently led to creations of art on the shelves of supermarkets, without regard to consumer needs and tastes, sustainability, and the like.
Rule Developing Experimentation (RDE), first formalized by the senior authors of this article (Alex Gofman and Howard Moskowitz) in cooperation with The Wharton School of Business,  has been adopted to optimize packages, websites, and magazine covers. RDE is a systematized, solution-oriented business process of experimentation, which designs, tests, and modifies alternative ideas, packages, products, or services in a disciplined way. Stimuli are laid out using experimental designs, allowing the developer and marketer to discover what appeals to the customereven if the customer can't articulate the need, much less the solution.
RDE is based on conjoint methods that have proliferated in the last few years. Conjoint measurement refers to a class of research and analytic procedures that use people's reactions to estimate how much individual elements of an item contribute to a total concept. For example, simple modeling using "dummy variable regression" can reveal the value of each element as part of the respondent's total rating for a concept. These utilities can tell the researcher in an absolute sense what proportion of a survey's respondents became interested when a particular element was added to the concept. By recording these values in a database, you can measure brand value over time, throughout consumer population segments, and across countries. 
Psychologists try to analyze consumer perception using other approaches. Researchers who worked with subjects in experiments in the 1920s were confronted by innovations in technology such as the Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) meter, which measured electrical conductance on the skin. This device became a standard physiological measure in the world of psychology. Another test involved measuring the electrical properties of the skin, especially those of muscles, and then taking a complete electroencephalogram (EEG) of the head. Yet another well-known GSR application is the lie-detector test or "polygraph." All of these efforts were intended to supplement current ways of measuring subjective responses, and perhaps to open new paths. The newest of these technologies is the brain scan. 
During the past decade, the notion has been developing that eye tracking (analyzing a person's gaze) could provide additional insights into consumer behavior. Eye tracking uses technology to track where the eye moves when examining an object (in our example, inspecting a package), providing a way for the researcher to know where a subject is looking, even if the person cannot articulate what he sees. Formally defined, eye tracking is a general term for techniques for measuring the point of gaze; that is, where a person is looking. Since human behavior and thinking are linked to where people look, the ability to measure eye gaze adds value to behavioral research and analysis.
Eye tracking originated in the late 1800s, used first by experimental psychologists and physiologists. Their equipment was intimidating, probably because most researchers at that time had to craft their own equipment with materials at hand. For instance, some devices were attached directly to people's eyes, in probably a fairly painful or at least annoying way.
Because equipment advances with technology breakthroughs, over time the barriers to routine eye tracking have fallen, reducing the intrusiveness of equipment (always a discouraging factor), increasing robustness, and improving the means to compute results rapidly and automatically. Finally, and probably most importantly, the price of the equipment has dropped, bringing the technology into reach of those who are interested in solving problems with this equipment, rather than simply those who are fortunate enough to have a skilled equipment-maker and the financial resources to make things happen.  The first of these advances were more modern, more recognizable technologies for eye tracking that appeared on the scene in the 1930s. These trackers used beams of light that were shined toward and reflected by the eye, and then recorded on film. Modern eye trackers don't affect test subjects or users and don't require extensive technical expertise. Such non-intrusiveness and ease of use have been keys for taking eye tracking out of the research labs and into broader use.