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Behavioral Science

I Know It When I Feel It: Multisensory Survey Design

Posted On  November 19, 2015

I recently read an article in the New Yorker titled, “Accounting for Taste,” which details the research of Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology. Perhaps best known for his “sonic chip” experiment (which proved that the sound of a potato chip’s crunch impacted its taste), Charles’s research has revealed rich insights into how the senses work together to drive perception and consumption.

This research raises important questions about the best methodology that we, as a research community, need to use for product and concept evaluation.

Non-visual sensory cues, which enter into many purchase decisions and usage occasions, can’t be captured in a two-dimensional visual concept descriptions. The industry recognizes this by doing taste tests; no one would launch a new food or beverage based only on a concept test, without first having the actual product tasted, ideally in a home use test.

Yet other cues like scent, sound, softness, and size can also play a crucial role in product acceptance and often go overlooked in research designs.

Will people notice that you took 0.5 oz of cereal out of the box in order to hold the line on pricing? In a monadic concept exposure, or even an interactive shelf shot that offers the chance to “pick up” the product and inspect it, consumers may not notice. But, in a real at-shelf experience, or when they get the box home and open it, small differences in product size or heft that didn’t seem like much when looking at the package or online might surpass the level of just-noticeable-difference necessary to have an impact. You simply can’t know until you test the change in-person.

Even for considered purchases, consumers simply can’t grasp what a major difference they will experience between holding two similar devices in their hands. The iPad2 was a mere .16” thinner and 0.2 lbs lighter than the original iPad (sounds like nothing, right?), yet the difference in-hand was striking. This is why showrooming in retail stores is alive and well even as people are shifting more of their actual purchasing online.

Trying to communicate concepts like size or weight with words/numbers rather than objects is risky since it either understates its impact (when people ignore it in the research) or overstates it (by asking all consumers to consider the trait, rationalize their reactions, and factor it into their decision-making).  This can lead to flawed conclusions and erroneous business decisions.

But the problem doesn’t stop at functional characteristics such as size/weight. Spence’s research suggests that the sound of the package opening or the product dispensing can have substantial impacts on product perceptions in use, impacting perceived functional benefits like freshness or equity impressions such as the masculinity of the product.

All of these things remind us that it is worth the money to do the research right by designing a study that leverages relevant non-visual cues if they are likely to play a meaningful role in product reactions.  This may mean that you need a costly central location test with product mock-ups, or it could be as simple as enhancing your web survey’s concept description with a brief video that allows consumers to hear the can open… ahhhhh!

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  1. Recent research in the UK, looking at winning ad campaigns has confirmed that strategically selected music delivers much stronger KPI’s than ads with just background music. Looks like sound in all forms is critical in sensory delivery and an element of the brand mix that is often ignored!

  2. No-one should dispute the value of “physical” in-situ testing for products/brands/services in order to get the most rounded research participant views for concept or product evaluations etc. But as our industry continues to innovate and research data capture goes increasingly digital, I look forward to seeing and experiencing how virtual reality can be best harnessed for experience and sensory based research. It’s probably all a lot closer than our industry currently thinks!


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