What lies beneath…
Perhaps one of the more well-known examples is eye tracking – the monitoring and tracking of unconscious eye movements to determine which aspects of a piece of visual stimulus (an advertisement or web page, for example) are drawing attention. But what does this tell us of how the respondent feels? How engaged or excited they are? Are they highly interested or just plain confused?
This is where newer, emerging technologies which measure other sensory responses to visual and audio stimuli can be used, to give an indication of not only what is drawing attention, but what is engaging and impacting at an emotional level.
For this blogpost, we’re focusing on two such technologies that have piqued our interest; facial coding and galvanic skin response (GSR).
Using Ekman’s ‘six basic emotions’(sadness, puzzlement, happiness, fear, rejection and surprise), facial coding is being utilised by companies such as Coca Cola and Unilever to measure consumers’ facial reactions to adverts and track how their mood changes across a matter of milliseconds. This serves two key functions: it allows them to differentiate between an advert being visible and it being engaged with, and it facilitates a breakdown of emotional reactions at different stages of the advert as opposed to gaining the overarching reaction that traditional research methods would likely provide.
The technology aims to provide insight into a participant’s innate, non-verbal reactions and give an understanding of their basic emotions by analysing and coding their facial expression. Having experimented with this technology ourselves, we have found it to be a useful tool in understanding a respondent’s natural and spontaneous reaction to stimulus. While it does have limitations in the scope and depth of research it can produce, there are multiple examples of it working successfully in consumer research. Disney, for example, have their own neuroscience lab and have been making use of the technology alongside other consumer neuroscience techniques since 2008. This has facilitated the development of pioneering uses of both facial coding and eye tracking technologies which work within crowd situations to bring animatronics to life when triggered by the gaze of its theme park goers.
One of the main advantages of facial coding is that the muscles necessary to perform facial expressions are directly linked to the brain and often work unconsciously. Although some individuals are undeniably more expressive than others, facial expressions are broadly universal, and can be easily assigned into categories such as happiness, anger or surprise by an algorithm.
Galvanic Skin Response
The other technology that has caught our interest is galvanic skin response (GSR). GSR works by measuring a respondent’s body perspiration levels to determine peaks in ‘arousal levels’ that indicate an unconscious emotional reaction, be it positive or negative.
Peaks in arousal levels can indicate anything along the emotional spectrum from frustration, stress or anxiety, all the way through to excitement. While the technology in itself does not indicate the nature of the emotion (this is determined by supplementary moderation), it does provide a valuable read on when, and to what extent, it is being felt.
Its uses range from static stimulus testing (e.g. ad/print/audiovisual testing), to identifying key touchpoints and measuring reactions to these within immersive, in situ research environments (e.g. in-store). Because it also allows us to capture and visually plot the extent to which the user is engaged over a period of time, it makes it an ideal tool to supplement ethnographic tasks.
The technology itself, much to our surprise, is discreet and unobtrusive and, perhaps best of all for in-situ research environments, fully portable – just a simple cuff attached to the finger wired up to a small battery…no electrodes attached to the forehead or back pack generators required!
Whilst neither technology is intended to be used as a standalone methodology, we do see both as having the ability to add an extra layer of untapped insight to more traditional qualitative and quantitative techniques and a welcome addition to the researcher’s toolkit. As researchers we are constantly evolving the approaches and techniques we offer and technologies such as these enable us to get further under the skin of what really lies beneath.