Why Putting Pets on a Package Grabs Attention – No Matter What’s Inside

Around the end-of-year gift-giving season, it’s fun to check out the packages that grab our attention. Like this one:

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Completely irresistible. How can you not look at those kitties and love them? Won’t you take them home? The feelings are so strong that it barely registers that what you’re also buying is the contents inside the box: in this case, small butter biscuits. Nothing to do with pets. But your brain, hardwired for attachment, feeling safe and happiest in connection, instantly overrides all logic.

The reasoning parts of your mind simply can’t compete with the attachment parts. Why? They’re up against 3.8 billion years of evolution. When mammals showed up  200 million years ago their young were uniquely helpless—the world had never seen such needy little ones. The tendency accelerated over the millennia, particularly for primates, and today humans bear the most helpless babies ever. If our infant offspring had the abilities of a newborn chimpanzee, our nearest living relative, they’d have to gestate 18-21 months!

So we stick readily—even to embossed kittens on a metal box – because that’s the solution Mother Nature came up with to overcome acute post-natal helplessness: acute attachment behavior. Nothing else could secure the species’ survival. And the quirky side-effect? We’ll attach to anything that suggests a little face—even on an inanimate box or bottle or building facade.

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Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 9.23.11 AMIt can’t be any other way since Nature’s preset what we most need to look at before birth. Marketers know this, of course, and use it effectively.  Architects don’t – and should take note!


cottage photo: © S Hines

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Eye-Tracking Architecture: Going viral…

Eye Tracking Examples
We were pleased to see our research reported in Common\Edge earlier this month getting broad coverage elsewhere. Let us know if you’d like to republish too.

1. Fast Company:

2. Architectural Digest:

3. ArchDaily: (in English + Portuguese)

4. ArchNewsNow:

5. Architecture Here and There:

6. More Sports, More Architecture: (in German + English)

7. Curbed:

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‘Game-Changing Eye-Tracking Studies Reveal How We Actually See Architecture’ from Common\Edge


Click on images above to read this recent post on CommonEdge.org, a non-profit site dedicated to improving the design of our built environment.

The piece is co-authored by Ann Sussman and Janice M. Ward from geneticsofdesign.com.

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Wellness Walls: A Look at Leaves and their Long-lasting Allure

GreenBuild1Last week’s GreenBuild/ ABX2017Expo in Boston boasted a mind-boggling 550+ exhibitors and 75+ product categories focused on sustainable building—from insulation to solar panels. As the escalator descended to the 12-acre exhibit space, I felt that Robin Williams’ Moscow on Hudson moment—completely overwhelmed by too many choices. So I dodged the crowds, blew past the booths, ditched the demonstrations. and tipped-toed past the tiny houses in favor of plants. Walls and walls of green plants. They drew me in.

GreenBuild2In an Expo Hall overflowing with people and products, I sought out the green at GreenBuild. E.O. Wilson, the famed biologist, might understand. In 1984, he proposed the biophilia hypothesis that suggests humans have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature. More recent research links the health and wellness benefits of green plants to increased productivity in the workplace, a happier workforce and increased memory retention.

I hung out in GreenBuild3the greenery for a while and visited a handful of vendors who touted the health benefits of vertical green walls. First stop: Nedlaw Living Walls where their biofiltration technology uses a hydroponic system to remove pollutants from a building’s air and return cleansed air while bringing nature into the workplace to improve employee well-being.

GreenBuild4Next came Naava whose “smart green walls” offer air purification technology in a soilless system that is monitored by sensors and artificial intelligence. The company’s goal is to create “healthier, happier, and more inspiring workplaces” with a fully-automated combination product—air purifier, humidifier and living plant wall—all in one.”

Ambius promotes standalone vertical or wall-mounted, hydroponic gardens called SageWallsä and mosaic-like systems called Sage Biotilesä that can support perennials, ground covers, annuals, vines and tropical foliage in any design configuration. Their walls improve air quality and beautify the workplace while boosting employee morale.

GreenBuild5The focus of CityScapes is to enhance the built “environment through biophilic design and the power of plants.” They claim the benefits of living walls include air filtration and pollution removal as well as stress reduction. Loved the fact their conference swag included an air plant in a tiny, round copper wire cage.

Suite Plants had my number: an easy-to-maintain modular green wall that can be mounted as easily as a photo on a wall, configured to any size and required no electricity or water pumps. The possibility of an easy-to-install small green wall in my home office appealed to my DIY nature.

If green walls can remove conference stress, imagine what they could do for an office, school, hospital or the building you’re in right now?

Turns out our man-made architecture works best when non-built features abound. At the end of the day, no matter the architect, it’s Mother Nature’s work we crave–as the experience of a 12-acre (4.8 hectare) exhibit space made clear.

Imagine the impact in a smaller venue–like my home office!


(All photos by Janice M. Ward at GreenBuild 2017 in Boston.)

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What Makes a Place Walkable? Turns out not just sidewalks.

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What makes a place walkable? Turns out it’s not just sidewalks. ‘Fixation points’ that stimulate the eye to look in a direction or at a specific place, matter too.

With eye-tracking tools, you can start to deconstruct the hidden process behind walkability, looking at how how we ‘fixate’ without conscious control, and then move our attention and/or our bodies towards the place in question. We can track the visual sequence our brain gets our eyes to follow as they look at something, as shown in the streetscape above, (at right).

This is Chance Street, a new neighborhood in Devens, central Massachusetts, designed to promote community and rehabilitate a former military base. Working with a team at Tufts, we eye tracked the new development using an off-the-shelf emulation product, 3M’s Visual Attention Software (VAS). The central image which it created shows a ‘heat map’ that glows brightest where people likely look most within the first 5 seconds taking in this scene (during ‘pre-attentive’ processing). The image at right above, shows the path eyes  likely follow within that timeframe. The fixation sequence shown here, 1 through 4, goes straight down the street, suggesting both the building layout and architecture promote walkability as intended – even before our conscious brain can get into the act.

Screen Shot 2017-09-17 at 12.03.05 AMEye-tracking data can also be compiled into ‘regions’, where outlined areas in red (in image at left) indicate a high probability of garnering viewing attention (74% – 98%), in yellow, a medium probability (58% – 63%). Areas with no outline will most likely be ignored.

So, here again, you can see that even if you’ve never been to Devens, you’ll have a pretty easy time navigating along Chance Street.

The biometric testing suggests that not all areas of the new development invite walkability to the same extent, however. For instance, the parking alley behind Chance Street, lined with free-standing garages, would prove much more daunting for the newcomer who would be less likely to even consider ambling along it. Why?

Screen Shot 2017-09-08 at 11.20.59 AM The images above show how the brain directs the eyes to take in the central area of the scene but provides no clear path of fixation points down the roadway – so nowhere to go from the unconscious brain’s perspective; and because unconscious processing directs conscious behavior, this is not going to be a popular pedestrian byway – ever. But come to think of it, that may be exactly what the developer and residents want: a street out front with people and one behind – for privacy’s sake – without them.

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Thanks to Prof Justin B Hollander, of Tufts, Hanna Carr, Tufts, ’20, for assistance with research and the Devens Enterprise Commission for supporting it.


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Want to Learn about the Brain? Eye Track an Apple Ad

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If you want to learn how your brain works, in particular how it takes in visual stimuli, look at an Apple ad.

The tech giant, listed as the world’s 9th largest company, with a current valuation of some $800 billion, has introduced revolutionary products since the ’70s. Less celebrated is how its success is rooted in computer science and consistently, dare we say it, reverential respect for and application of neuroscience. Apple studies the human brain, and more than any other tech company we know, designs its products to fit our hidden proclivities, particularly the innate animal ones we may not realize we have.

Above is a recent iPad ad that caught my eye; I don’t own an iPad and am not interested in doing so, yet the ad drew me in. How? We decided to eye track it with off-the-shelf software that tracks pre-attentive processing, or the first 3 to 5 seconds you look at something – that’s well before your conscious brain can get into the act.

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Ah-hah! We found-out fast that the iPad ad masterfully manipulates our pre-attentive algorithms, feeding the brain just what it’s built to see, in the way that’s easiest for it to take in.  Above is a ‘heat map’ which glows brightest where we look most, fading to blue and then grey in areas ignored. We see how the colorful contrasting ‘dots’ (perhaps they’re stars or planets) on the iPad screen in the original ad are far from randomly selected: they hook us magnetically, then our attention shifts to the text and then back again to the new product’s screen. The predicted visual sequence within the first-5-seconds is diagrammed below, starting first in the area of pinkish dots  and then, appropriately enough, ending right back there. Of course the dots’ reddish hue is far from randomly selected since our eyes go straight for that color, in particular favoring red-green contrasts which the ad – surprise! – also provides. Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 12.05.52 PM

Eye-tracking studies outline regions of an image to summarize where attention will likely fall. And the diagram below statistically quantifies why this ad’s a keeper: some 88% of viewers are predicted to focus directly on the new product screen, with 79% taking in the product name. Not bad, considering all this likely happens without a word of instruction from the vendor within 5 seconds.Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 11.57.53 AMApple, of course. sees its business as knowing people well, better than they know themselves. Steve Jobs was not at all secretive about the corporate approach either. “The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have,” he would say.

It’s just that most people never quite understood what he meant; he was talking about hidden processes that direct their lives and that they didn’t and still don’t know are there.

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‘The Mental Disorders that Gave Us Modern Architecture’ from CommonEdge.org

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Click on images above to read this recent post on CommonEdge.org, a non-profit site dedicated to improving the design of our built environment.

The piece is co-authored by Ann Sussman and Katie Chen. Ann also co-authors this GoD (GeneticsofDesign) blog with Janice Ward.

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