The Consumer Neuroscience Company
lowes
25. August 2019

How to ensure that in-store signage helps navigation

Young asian woman walking in cosmetics department at the mall

In-store signage is perhaps not something you would think of as important. But when done right, it can drive customers right to your desired area. Conversely, when signage design is not optimized for attention, it can lead customers confused. Here, we show how a simple analysis using eye-tracking allowed us to correct an unintentional negative effect in Lowe’s stores.

The store navigation that failed

One of the unique services that we at Neurons provide is the ability to test customer responses while in the store. Often, we give participants a shopping list of items and then allow them to walk undisturbed. After all, we still record where they walk and what they do with eye-trackers, allowing us to pinpoint where in the store and what products they are inspecting, without having to follow them or asking them questions.

At one particular project for Lowe’s, we discovered something puzzling. Participants spent a whole lot of unnecessary time finding the right aisles. This was not just a few participants — many participants had obvious issues finding their way. But it made no sense since we could see that there were navigation signs in the ceiling.

But when talking to the store manager, we were told that he had received many complaints that the store difficult to navigate. That said, he did not know why this was the case. After all, Lowe’s stores tend to be built very close to a nation-wide template, with little room for variation.

Both we and the store managers were puzzled.

Signage design boosts attention

As part of the study, we used mobile eye-tracking. That is, we used eye-tracking glasses to capture visual attention while the participants were walking around the stores. What we discovered was that when people looked towards the ceiling signs that would otherwise help them find the way, they were distracted by a campaign sign that was hanging just underneath it! Instead of looking at the navigation sign, the campaign sign got all the attention.

Importantly, the campaign sign was about the company’s new website, which bore little relevance to navigation needs. This is shown by the red dots of the eye-tracking in one of the participants in the study. As you can see, the eyes are mostly fixated on what’s underneath the main white navigation sign, and mostly not on the navigation sign itself.

When we use eye-tracking, we can quantify visual attention — for example, as how many people see (or miss) a given sign, and for how long they are looking at it. By doing this, it is possible to compare different sign designs to identify what works best. In doing this, we tested customer visual responses to new ad design, where the design was optimized for boosting visual salience.

Here, we found that the new sign was successful at getting attention both when people were browsing the store (e.g., passive attention to signs), and when they were actively navigating the store. Even more compellingly, we saw that the time that people spent finding the right aisle was 40% faster with the new design. This suggests that navigation signs that are optimized for gaining automatic attention indeed show more attention and boosted navigation success.

Visual salience is key

Visual attention is more than a single thing. We know that our eyes can be drawn to things for several reasons. For example, if we are looking for a Coca-Cola product, we will be more likely to see products that are red and with curly letters. Another type of visual attention is emotionally driven, as when we are more likely to notice something that is either threatening or appealing. But one type of attention that we often forget is visual salience — an automatic response to properties in the visual object itself relative to its surroundings, which makes it “pop out” to our eyes, and our eyes are automatically drawn to it.

Using eye-tracking alone, we don’t know if people are looking at something because they are looking for it, are responding emotionally to it, or because it automatically pops out. To better understand and measure visual salience, we are using NeuroVision, which is a mathematical algorithm that predicts what people are likely to automatically notice. When you upload an image or a video, it processes the image(s) and produces a heat map which shows the most visually salient features in the picture or video frame. It now has an 85% accuracy compared to eye-tracking tests.

By analyzing visual salience for in-store signs with NeuroVision, we could see that the signs (orange squares below) simply did not gain automatic attention. Rather, many other things were more likely to grab attention.

By then using this information to work on different sign designs, we helped the sign design team to find the most suitable sign to boost visual attention. We first worked in Photoshop and then used mocks in the store. The final product was then tested with eye-tracking tests to ensure that the final design indeed was seen more than the traditional sign.

Going beyond signs

Understanding in-store sign responses is only one way that consumer neuroscience can help retailers and other companies improve the customer journey. As a side note, we have seen that optimized signs also produce a lower cognitive load (customers do not need to actively keep in mind what they are looking for) and more positive emotional responses (better navigation improves flow in the customer journey to focus more on product responses).

Going beyond navigation signs, the same approach can be used to improve price labels such as shelf-edge labels. Here, one could ask whether it is more important to have customers focus on the product or the price first. Also, shelf planning itself can be helped by understanding the visual scan pattern that customers show in the store. By using this, often in conjunction with emotional and cognitive responses, it is possible to find ways to substantially improve the customer journey.