The digital transformation of consumer analysis — from slow and cumbersome to fast-paced and lean

  • by Johan Bouvin
  • 7 min

A woman wearing a VR headset is selecting groceries in the Metaverse.

The job of consumer analysis is to interpret customer experience, understand how people connect with products, and how the sales environment (the context) affects their behavior. The purpose is to generate insights that can be used to adapt to change or optimize the experience. Traditionally, market researchers and user experience professionals have relied on surveys, interviews, and focus groups to yield qualitative results. As the field evolved, psychology and quantitative analysis became part of the process.

In this spark-your-imagination post, I'll start by taking you on a walk down memory lane with a brief history of the evolution of consumer analysis. What I will focus on most, however, is the role of technology — specifically eye tracking and VR — and how it has transformed consumer analysis into a multidisciplinary, fast-paced, and lean process.

From manual and cumbersome to automated and lean

The field of understanding consumers began sometime around the start of the twentieth century. Initially, it was a qualitative process that relied on communication and observation to extract insights, expertise to make conclusions, with manual implementation of improvements.

In this article, A brief history of market researchers, Kelton talks about the ad men of the 1920s and how they took to the streets to figure out if their work was having an impact. They interviewed people, asking them about the papers and magazines they read and if they could recall any specific ads — a time-consuming and probably not an entirely objective process. As consumer analysis evolved, companies like Nielsen began to appear, providing quantitative, impartial data to help marketers with their work.

Post-WWII, human factors came into play. In 1945, for example, Bell Labs hired a psychologist to help design phone systems, a bizarre concept at the time but was undoubtedly the beginnings of what we today refer to as UX or the user experience.

Pre-internet, I would say that the feedback loop from analysis, through generating insights, to implementing change relied heavily on resource hours, and results were probably sub-optimal. The ability to, for example, recreate a store design including products and advertising in a real-world setting is fraught with hurdles. Imagine a global sports brand looking to roll out a new store design in multiple locations. The ability to change parts or adapt a concept to local interests needs hands-on competence, resources to build and reconstruct, and an efficient supply chain with experts flying in and out of locations — a logistical and costly nightmare. And even if you have the time and money to do it, you won’t know if it all works until months, maybe even years after the experts have moved on.

A woman wearing Tobii Pro Glasses 2 navigates in the shop while a test leader observes it through a Live View function in the Tobii Pro Analyzer software.

Eye tracking shows exactly what attracts the consumer’s attention.

Like so many other disciplines, consumer analysis has leveraged technology for generating speed and efficiencies. Today’s marketers rely on a diverse ecosystem of tools that leave nothing to guesswork. Eye tracking, for example, allows researchers to literally see through the eyes of their consumers. VR is helping to solve geographical issues, support collaboration, but in my opinion, the capability to make and test changes on the fly is VR’s greatest advantage. Together, VR and eye tracking are revolutionizing consumer analysis — from slow to fast, from manual to automated, and from cumbersome to lean.

The impact of eye tracking

I believe that eye tracking is probably the most effective post-internet tool to hit consumer analysis. I say this because if I’m part of a focus group testing a new product, I can, for example, control what I say, I can even control the way I respond (my tone), but I cannot completely control the way my eyes behave when I see a product for the first time. Because of this, eye tracking delivers unbiased visual attention and engagement insights about me and my behavior, which companies can use to make informed business decisions. No other tool lets you see through the eyes of your customers. There is no other way to objectively figure out what attracts a person’s attention, how they react, and how they browse back and forth

And so, eye tracking has proven extremely useful in assessing the effectiveness of advertising, placement, and packaging — which you can read more about in our case studies on Unilever and media owner Limited Space.

The impact of VR

Then I would say that VR is the lucky runner-up in the stakes for best consumer analysis tool. By creating environments in a virtual world, designers can control all external influences in the buying process. VR makes it possible to conduct consumer analysis just about anywhere, designers and developers can collaborate in the same space, and multiple iterations become feasible.

Eye tracking enabled VR

The ability of eye tracking to deliver unbiased data and the mobility and collaborative capabilities of VR together create a powerful tool for gathering detailed insights about consumers. But I’d say that the beauty of eye tracking enabled VR lies in its capability to gather data at every step of the customer experience. When combined, these technologies make it possible to adjust individual stimuli to trigger responses and behaviors — with instantaneous feedback — replacing the slow, resource-intensive, and costly real-world consumer-analysis process with a fast, lean virtual one.

The agility of consumer analysis in VR gives marketers insights about the effectiveness of an ad, for example, enabling on-the-fly A/B testing of the impact of changing the ad's location. Designers can adjust coloring, logo sizes, or special offers if product packaging isn't catching attention. And if a store design doesn't deliver good customer flow, you can rearrange aisles and register placement with a few swipes — no need to tear stores apart and rebuild them.

Use cases — Virtual Retail and Electrolux

Researchers in the commercial and academic worlds have been using eye tracking and VR for some time. But when it comes to commercial use and revolutionizing processes with technology, two companies stick out, in my opinion — Virtual Retail and  Electrolux.

Virtual Retail is a London-based enterprise specializing in helping brands design retail spaces using their VR platform. The platform enables brands to create effective commercial displays and environments, rapidly delivering fully adaptable designs — adding racks, removing signage, stacking objects with just a few clicks. Throughout the process, designers and stakeholders can collaborate, sending revisions to focus groups, who use eye tracking enabled headsets to generate feedback. Making design iterations fast and objective, based on quantitative data about the customer experience.


The eye tracking generated heatmap shows what parts of the ad capture the tester’s attention. Image courtesy of Virtual Retail.

Another post by my colleague Maggie Ma, Fail fast and do it for free — redefining retail with VR and eye tracking, tells the Virtual Retail story in more detail.

Sweden-based home appliance manufacturer Electrolux has revolutionized the way they design products by bringing prototypes into virtual environments. VR enables them to run design reviews more rapidly than traditional focus groups, making changes directly in the virtual environment — a faster and cheaper approach to creating physical prototypes for each adjustment. Their team can place competitor products in the virtual environment without the bother of purchasing and moving them physically with every iteration. And they can observe consumers as they interact with knobs, open doors, and machine settings, seeing exactly how their eyes move and where they linger.

Both Electrolux and Virtual Retail are reaping the benefits of shorter development cycles and more effective design research. Using eye tracking in a virtual environment has freed up their teams and resources and provided them robust insights about customer experiences.

See for yourself

I’d want to wrap up this post with a suggestion for you to see it for yourself. Our developer site contains a wealth of demos and reading materials, but I would suggest you start with these three sections:

Eye tracking metrics — if you are starting out with eye tracking, this section describes some common metrics you might want to consider on your data collection journey.

Shoozies showcase — which shows the possibilities of eye tracking in a digital design experiment. You can, for example, see how to determine optimal product placement.

Consumer research — to learn about various tried-and-true fields of use for this methodology, like branding/package design, wayfinding/store layout, and customer informational processing. This section also contains links to various published consumer studies from reputable sources.

Download the Tobii XR SDK to see the power of eye tracking in your virtual environments for commercial analysis. We have options for developing in Unity, Unreal Engine 4, or using our native libraries. Contact Tobii’s team of experts if you have any questions about using this SDK.

Written by

  • Johan Bouvin

    Johan Bouvin

    Director of product — XR software and ecosystem at Tobii

    Hi, I work with tons of developers from all over, hoping to gain an understanding of how their eye tracking needs are evolving. My aim is to ensure that we continue to develop our SDKs, developer tools, and XR platform to align with the rapidly expanding needs of the industry. I collaborate with amazing people in different lines of work. I find the more varied the individuals, the more interesting the results.

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