Category Archives: Blog

COVID-19: A Call for Change

Unfamiliar Orders and Strange Routines

The unexpected COVID-19 outbreak called for our nation to change. This change came in all forms: change in hygienic measures, change in store policies, and change in our daily habits. With the pandemic came distress, fear, and panic as we struggled to identify the virus and find ways to slow its spread. Preventative measures needed to be taken. The CDC called for mask-wearing, social distancing, and limited gatherings (CDC, 2020). These changes seemed dramatic at first, as we have dealt with many outbreaks and never taken these types of measures before. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic taught us how to adapt to the changes and innovate with the new circumstances of our lives. Plus, the encouraged use of these preventative measures in our daily lives has reprioritized avoiding disease and awareness of germs. These behaviors can have lasting benefit for us, even after the pandemic ends.

Hand Sanitizer for the Wiser

We all know to wash our hands frequently, clean and disinfect our household surfaces often, and stay away from people when we are sick. However, although intuitive, it seemed like these practices had diminished in importance until being reimplemented and popularized by the current pandemic. Even though these hygienic measures have always been commonplace, reminders and nudges from the media, stores, and government officials made it impossible to avoid these messages. New measures, which may turn into the norm, are being implemented. From wearing a mask to visit the doctor’s office to exercising extra caution when travelling, some policies have informed behavioral trends which are likely to be here to stay. Although it seemed unusual at first, these simple practices have become part of our daily routines (Clavin, 2020). Even though we had to make a conscious effort at first to adjust, actively participating in these new rituals allowed us to become quickly accustomed to grabbing a mask before heading out the door or leaving a little extra room between other customers in the grocery store line. 

How do Habits Form?

Think about something that took you a really long time to learn, such as how to play your favorite song on the piano. At first, it was difficult, and much of your time and energy was devoted to mastering it. But after you became more comfortable with the instrument’s features and understood how to produce certain sounds, it became much easier —habitual.

Playing an instrument, exercising, washing your face, and every other habit-forming activity all follow the same behavioral and neurological patterns. Every habit starts with a psychological pattern, a “habit loop,” which is defined by Duhigg (2012) in a three-part process: 

  • First, there is a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into “autopilot” to let a behavior unfold. This can be a certain time in the day for picking up the instrument or seeing a poster of your favorite artist as you walk home after work. Basically, it is the first push into teaching your brain a new trick.
  • Next is the routine, which is the behavior itself. Here, we learn this behavior either through practice or just repetition and eventually incorporate it into our daily routines.
  • The third step is the reward, which is something that your brain enjoys. The reward helps the brain remember the “habit loop” so that the behavior can be carried out in the future (Gardner, Lally, & Wardle, 2012).

The Science Behind Habits

Neuroscientists have traced our primary habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories, and pattern recognition (Duhigg, 2012). The decision-making part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, becomes less active as a behavior becomes habitual. Eventually, the prefrontal cortex activity diminishes as the behavior is mastered. This explains why multitasking is easy while performing a habitual behavior, such as talking to a passenger while on your daily drive to work. Navigating the roads to end up at your destination may seem difficult at first, but after performing it many times, you don’t even need to think twice about what turn to make or what street to park on–you just know. The basal ganglia allow us to carry out these originally complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it by turning them into our automatic routines (Duhigg, 2012).

Habit formation exists in our relationship to products as well. The associations between a customer’s habit and the reward that comes with it may encourage buying behavior. This is how Febreeze or other cleaning supplies are marketed: convince customers that their product can deliver that reward that follows a habit (Duhigg, 2012). Cleaning companies highlight the rewards, such as eliminating odors, to entice customers to adopt the product into their habit loop. During the pandemic, the ritual of wiping items down to stay clean was reinforced constantly by messaging on TV, by the news, and even through the behaviors of others. As individual behaviors changed, companies and marketers took note and aligned their messaging to better connect with their customers. By adjusting to the newly formed habits, the products and companies who adapted stayed relevant to the ever-changing customer.

The New Normal

The pandemic has shifted the ordinary—in some ways for the better. It is evident that the world has been transformed since the onset of COVID-19. Here are a few examples of impactful behavior changes emphasized by the pandemic:  

No More Handshakes

Isn’t it weird to reminisce on our old practices, pre-COVID-19? Specifically, our standard greeting: the handshake. Our hands carry so many germs that it is difficult to ever entertain the thought of shaking a friend’s hand ever again. Luckily, this behavior is one of the many impacted by the pandemic and has changed for the better. The classic handshake may no longer be considered the standard way to greet clients, coworkers, or friends, and can instead be replaced by a nod, wave, or warm smile. 

Handshakes are just one form of touch that has been dismantled by the pandemic, along with high-fives, fist bumps, and hugs. As we begin to emerge from our homes and move closer together to rebuild our social lives, experts are betting that some degree of social touch will disappear permanently, even after the pandemic ends (Oaklander, 2020). Although we do not know for sure what social interactions will feel awkward or outdated as we move past COVID-19, it is safe to say the way we view human connection via touch has changed.

The Work from Home Life

Prior to the pandemic, allowing students and employees to work from the comfort of their homes seemed like an uncommon luxury, but drastic times call for drastic measures. Since the pandemic started, millions of professionals have figured out how to be productive from their homes. Technological advances made this luxury a reality, causing both educational and office life to have permanent changes. These advances enabled students or workers to log on wherever they are, as the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that work can indeed be completed at home. Coming out of the pandemic, companies are more likely to allow for flexible work environments, and therefore, individuals may take advantage of remote opportunities.

Telehealth…for Better Health

Working from home is not the only thing to go virtual during these interesting times. Minimizing exposure to large crowds has encouraged the use of grocery delivery services and online shopping. This pandemic has made us reflect on what “essential” means. Even some doctor’s offices have moved to a telehealth arrangement to promote social distancing. Before the pandemic, meeting with our doctor online seemed foreign. COVID-19 has proved to us that although it is nice to connect face-to-face, many meetings or appointments can be conducted successfully virtually (Kumar & Modalavalasa, 2020). Care at a distance has brought along with it a large array of benefits for both the doctor and the patient:

1) Reducing the Spread of Infections: Remote medical consultations serve to eliminate the threat of disease transmission and infection among healthcare providers and vulnerable patients (Schmid, 2016). This is key, as it is easy to spread infectious diseases, such as the flu or common cold, in a medical setting where many sick patients may gather in one room.

2) Reducing Stress: Travelling to a doctor’s appointment, along with sitting in a waiting room amongst other sick patients, may be intimidating for some. A remote consultation via a video call can ease the anxiety associated with a trip to the doctor’s office as well as remove the burden of travelling (Schmid, 2016).

3) Increasing Accessibility:  Virtual appointments provide more accessibility to the elderly, disabled, or those who live far from their healthcare practitioners and no longer feel comfortable travelling. Whether the reason be due to an injury which makes it difficult to walk or a condition resulting in the inability to drive, virtual consultations allow for more people to have better access to their healthcare providers. Although this type of access is extremely valuable during a pandemic, it has lasting effects with a positive impact. 

So, whether you scheduled a virtual appointment or worked from home, COVID-19 has made an impact on your life. As our behaviors continue to adapt with the changing environment, we have a choice to modify or continue certain habits. The habits developed during the pandemic are not all life-altering; some small changes make big differences. Our unhealthy habits and practices can be swapped out for healthier, safer, and less tactile ones, but it’s ultimately up to us to decide what habits stay and what go.

Benefits of Connecting Through the Screen

Video communication services, such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Teladoc, now offer different types of video sessions; for example, the first two offer breakout rooms or blurred backgrounds to make it easier to work from home (Kumar & Modalavalasa, 2020). Having special features to enhance virtual meetings has enticed a lot of people to take advantage of this offer. As the number of people switching to these video communication services increases, companies and schools are also switching to these services to meet consumer needs and expectations. Fitness studios, schools, and healthcare offices have become hybrid– they still allow the in-person experience with modifications, while still having the option of going remote for anyone who wishes to accept.

Diving into the world of professional virtual sessions was a foreign practice for many industries, but it’s one that might be here to stay (Tigar, 2020). While in-person appointments will start up again, and gyms will reopen, the virtual option will always be available to assist those who are reluctant or incapable of joining in-person. Some individuals simply enjoy the leisure of virtual sessions, and companies or practitioners may benefit from this change too. For example, individuals may feel more comfortable being vulnerable during a therapy session or a focus group in a safe, familiar space like their home (Tigar, 2020). Having a virtual component as an option is a great alternative for many everyday situations we used to believe had to be in-person. Tools like video communication have a positive impact and integrate well to the new circumstances of 2020 and beyond.

Sustaining These Changes

Deviation from our normal routines due to COVID-19 has caused us to pick up new habits, whether they be beneficial (using your commute time to go on a walk), unfavorable (sleeping in until noon), or just different (wearing casual clothes to work meetings). Regardless, the habits we formed during the pandemic may outlast the virus. This includes the habits we have picked up for the safety of ourselves and others, such as mask-wearing and hand-washing, or personal goals, such as waking up early to exercise.

Our ability to adapt and form new habits will come in handy even after the pandemic has ended. We have seen signs in practically every public place that read to “stay six feet apart,” hand sanitizer dispensers on every corner, and even personal protective equipment for sale in just about every store. The pandemic has created a newfound appreciation for our health. We should all strive to continue to listen to the CDC for guidance as the situation continues to change. Behaviors which were once challenging to disrupt, like face-touching, practicing social-distancing, and cleaning surfaces frequently, have now become habitual for many and helped greatly reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The gravity of COVID-19 is immense, and there is no way to know for certain what habits will be sustained, although it’s almost certain none of the habits will last forever (Lichfield, 2020). However, we can understand that forming new habits during the COVID-19 era was much needed and transformed us, as both companies and consumers, for the better. Companies found the value in telecommuting and employees discovered the joys of working from home. Our habitual response to the pandemic brought about significant improvements in many aspects of our lifestyles. While adapting to this changing reality was necessary, we learned that perseverance in the face of change is what allows us to thrive. Most importantly, it helped to remind us that change isn’t always a bad thing…


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Clavin, W. (2020, April 27). Forming New Habits in the Era of the Coronavirus. Retrieved February 01, 2021, from

Duhigg, C. (2012, March 05). Habits: How They Form And How To Break Them. Retrieved February 01, 2021, from

Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012, December). Making health habitual: The psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. Retrieved February 01, 2021, from

Kumar, V., & Modalavalasa, R. P. (2020, August 16). 5 lasting changes from the COVID-19 pandemic. Retrieved February 01, 2021, from

Lichfield, G. (2020, April 10). We’re not going back to normal. Retrieved February 01, 2021, from

Oaklander, M. (2020, May 27). COVID-19 Killed the Handshake. What Will Replace It? Retrieved February 01, 2021, from

Schmid, M. (2016, July 08). How video consultations can benefit patients and the NHS. Retrieved February 02, 2021, from

Tigar, L. (2020, May 22). 6 Things We Predict Will Never Go Back to “Normal” After Coronavirus. Retrieved February 02, 2021, from

Fight Back or Stand Back: The Fight-or-Flight Response

Stress and the Body’s Call to Action

For high anxiety situations, the human body has a natural defense to optimize the body and ward off anticipated attack. This alarm reaction known as the fight-or-flight response occurs in response to the threat of imminent danger and refers to a physiological reaction that occurs when we are in the presence of something that is, put simply, terrifying (Sterling & Frings, 2016). The fight-or-flight response is triggered by the release of hormones that prepare your body to either fight, to take on the threat, or flight, to run away to safety and avoid an encounter with the threat.

The term in itself represents the choices that our ancestors had when faced with danger in their environment, such as a wild animal. Going with the situation where the threat was a dangerous animal, the individual could either choose to fight or flee from this animal. In either case, the physiological and psychological response to stress prepares the body to react to the danger. A chain of rapidly occurring reactions inside the body help to mobilize the body’s resources to deal with threatening circumstances (Cherry, 2019). These same types of reactions still take place today, but in response to less threatening, low alarm events. The fight-or-flight response is now activated in everyday situations where threat is perceived, such as dodging an unexpected ball from the neighbor’s kickball game or watching a scary movie.

This physiological reaction also is very relevant today in the marketing world, as it is important for market researchers to communicate appropriate messages for specific stimuli. Being aware of the stress response of the consumer during the product or communication experience helps to determine the object’s viability. Market research companies may work with advertisers to produce a TV, magazine, or even bus-stop advertisement to ensure the right response is stimulated. By conducting market research to measure the stress response, companies receive feedback about the impact of their product to make sure it is meeting the mark.

Stress is Never Good…Or Is It?

Stress is a form of psychological or physiological arousal that drives behavior by influencing our decision-making. Although stress is mainly viewed in a negative light, it does have benefits. To paint it in a more positive light, stress can be seen as a burst of energy that advises us. Next time you are stressed out, think of these benefits to motivate you-literally!

  1. Inspires Productivity: Stress brings about an increased sense of urgency, which allows you to achieve your goals by making you more alert and focused on one topic or task (Brandon, 2016). No matter how menial the situation, stress makes you more aware of it and sharpens your decision-making to take the best course of action.
  2. Fuels More Energy: All of this extra energy can motivate you and make you work harder. If you are stressed about something, it highlights your attentiveness and dedication to the task at hand, such as a market research presentation, which shows your company that you value the outcome of your hard work (Brandon, 2016).
  3. Gets Creative Juices Flowing: Next time you make a wrong turn on the way home from work, remember that it is stress motivating you to find an alternate route. This also applies to the business world where the surge of adrenaline sharpens your decision-making and enables you to work to find the right answer to a unique problem. Stress can actually make you productive by helping you find a quick solution.

What separates “good stress” from “bad stress” is the concern or fear of threat. The fight-or-flight response can be categorized as both good and bad stress. It exists as a way to protect us from dangerous situations by making us more alert and prepared to make a decision, which would be to fight or flight. The fight-or-flight response does not always have to be activated by a major crises or catastrophe—it can actually occur as a reaction to common, petty stressors like reacting to the car in front of you stopping short. But regardless of the degree of fear of a situation, how exactly does this response work?

What Happens During the Fight-or-Flight Response?

Physiologically, fight-or-flight has a number of common effects, the majority being governed by the hypothalamus, the region of the brain tasked with activating the sympathetic nervous system, which directs the body’s defense mechanism. When a stress response is triggered, this area of the brain activates the production of adrenaline to initiate the fight-or-flight response. After the hypothalamus is prompted by a stressor, our body undergoes three stages of stress:

  1. Alarm/Stress Response: Here, our sympathetic nervous system is activated by the sudden release of hormones, which then stimulates the adrenal glands.
  2. Resistance: The threat continues, and now the body must activate at a higher operating level and optimize resources. The adrenal glands trigger the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, stress hormones associated with the fight-or-flight reaction to stress. Adrenaline increases heart rate and perspiration, activates the production of cortisol, constricts the blood vessels, and dilates the pupils to allow additional light into the eyes. This results in better vision of the surroundings, slows digestion, and suppresses the immune response. Both adrenaline and noradrenaline dilate the coronary arteries so that the heart pumps faster and certain blood vessels constrict, causing the blood pressure to rise. Rapid heart rate and breathing provide the body with the energy and oxygen needed to fuel a rapid response to danger.
  3. Exhaustion/Fatigue: At this stage, the body has now been faced with prolonged exposure to the threat and has just about depleted its resources (Burgess, 2017). This strains the body, resulting in a tired feeling that lowers activity levels. The stages of stress result in the inevitable behavior response, which explains why runners or spectators may jump at the sound of a gun at the start of a race.

The Mechanism and Anatomy of the Stress Response

It is crucial to explore not only the generated fear response, but also what happens on the microscale to produce this response. Specifically, what happens internally to trigger the sympathetic nervous system. Let’s dive in to get a better understanding of the body’s reactions. 

Capping the two kidneys are the adrenal glands; hormones of the adrenal gland help the body deal with stress. The inner layer of this gland, the medulla, releases hormones that handle sudden stress, and the outer layer of this gland, the cortex, releases hormones to help the body handle long term stress. The adrenal medulla secretes epinephrine and norepinephrine, or adrenaline and noradrenaline respectively, the two hormones responsible for the fight or flight response (Schraer, 1993). They are secreted in response to sudden stresses, such as fear, anger, pain, or physical exertion. Epinephrine increases the rate of metabolism and the release of glucose by the liver and the rate and strength of the heartbeat, blood pressure, breathing rate, blood clotting rate, and sweating. The major hormone of the adrenal cortex is cortisol, the hormone we automatically associate with stress. Cortisol affects the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats and regulates the glucose level in the blood. This enhances the availability of substances that can be used to repair tissues in stressful situations (Schraer, 1993). Whether it be walking past a growling dog or watching the “…” for a highly anticipated text message, the fight-or-flight response can occur at any point in our lives. Yet, these reactions are all dependent on how we perceive a threat. Since threats of varying levels can occur in all different types of situations, it is important to consider the magnitude of the response and how it compares to other reactions. This is where physiological markers are useful to monitor individual responses to different types of stimuli.

How Can We Measure a Stress Response?

Measuring stress response can be very beneficial for market researchers as a way to better understand if their stimulus properly communicates the intended message. There are many techniques in use to accurately assess a stress response.

Biometrics are useful indicators of a person’s psychophysiological reactions, specifically stress and attention. Analyzing changes to heart rate and heart rate variability to pinpoint the fight-or-flight response is one type of biometric measure when exploring consumer response. A study from Rowntree (2016) exposed viewers to a horror film to analyze their responses. A total of 15 fight-or-flight responses had been triggered during tense scenes, suggested by the recorded changes in heart rate, skin moisture, movement, and audible reactions during traumatic scenes. Reviewing all of the physiological reactions within the context of the research environment helps to determine the emotional response of participants, but other measures may also add some insight into why the response occurs. 

Eye tracking is a great measure to complement biometrics when assessing stress response. Since eye tracking is used as a measure of visual attention, it allows researchers to analyze the duration of fixation and see where viewers focus on a stimulus. Using this measure in combination with surveys or self-reports allows marketers to understand what grabbedviewer’s attention and how the stimulus was perceived. From there, the developers can adjust the stimulus to include visual cues to best direct the consumer only to the most important content as well as identify which information is most appropriate to keep the viewer’s attention.

Biometrics, eye tracking, and traditional surveys are great for evaluating an overall experience. Yet, if you are trying to review the onset of a stressor, it may be helpful to compare it to a stressor purposefully induced. For example, the Stroop Color test induces mental stress to evaluate the participant’s selective attention response. This test acts as a mental stressor due to its ability to activate all parts of a person’s sympathetic nervous system, which controls the body’s reflexive response to stress, such as increased heart rate and dilated pupils (Boutcher, 2006). This phenomenon, referred to as the Stroop Effect, illustrates the interference in the reaction time of a task. Participants are asked to acknowledge the text color as opposed to the word written. For example, the word “red” may have a text color in blue. When the name of a color is printed in a different color, a setback occurs as a person tries to process the word’s color. This causes stress, as indicated by the participants’ elevated heart rate and epinephrine levels (Boutcher, 2006). This type of test is helpful and important for marketers looking to understand the driving forces that create the underlying emotions that influence consumer behavior. A 2004 study (Warrenburg) utilized the Stroop test to first induce stress in participants and then used relaxing fragrances to reduce that stress, revealing that relaxing, aromatic fragrances also serve as stress-relievers in that they produce a muscle-relaxing effect.

Proceed With Caution… Understanding the Stress Response for Market Research

The fight-or-flight response can be triggered by both threatening and non-threatening events. This stress response is essential in that it primes the body to be better prepared when it must perform under pressure for any event. Something that does not pose any imminent danger, such as a dance recital, can cause a fight-or-flight reaction even if the event in itself is innocent. The stress created by the situation can actually be helpful, making it more likely that you will cope effectively with the threat, enabling you to perform optimally.

Although uncommon, in such cases where a threat is dangerous, the fight-or-flight response plays a critical role in your survival. By gearing you up to fight or flee, the fight-or-flight response occurs to help you survive the danger. Similarly, the body responds to everyday threats to ensure safety. Understanding the effects of this stress response can help improve advertisements, product designs, or communications to get across their message. For example, a campaign against drunk driving can create a context where anticipation creates a stress response to make an impact on viewers. By conducting market research to get a better understanding of consumers’ responses, the messages may be better received when the advertisement is launched.

Fear-Based Advertising

Emotions are one of the many things that drive behavior. Fear-based advertisements use the stress response as a tool to evoke a certain emotion in the target audience. Based on how information is shared or displayed, it can discourage or encourage a certain behavior using fearful images, messages, or music. Fear appeals, thus “shock” advertising, which causes viewers to feel tense (Algie & Rossiter, 2008). Fear-based advertising has been seen in smoking, drug, and even sunscreen ads. A study by Leshner, Clayton, Bolls, and Bhandari (2017) has shown that using deceptive and disgusting messages in smoking ads can cause viewers to exhibit an array of defensive responses. For example, to encourage people to apply sunscreen before a day at the beach, an advertisement may include images of sunburns, wrinkles, sun blisters, or cuts. It gives a narrative of what could happen if you do or do not use the product. This marketing strategy has proven effective, as consumers prefer stories and images over statistics (Gorbatch, 2019). Having an in-depth understanding of the target audience, through surveys, interviews, or other forms of market research, allows marketers to better develop content to successfully trigger the viewer’s fight-or-flight response within the appropriate context (Crolley, 2020).  

Takeaway Message

Exploring the fight-or-flight response and how it impacts our decisions reveals what motivates us to pursue certain courses of action. Understanding the fight-or-flight response within different contexts gives market researchers the opportunity to understand why consumers respond the way they do, and in turn, improve the stimuli to meet the consumer expectation. Hopefully by reviewing one of the body’s ways to respond to stress, the fight-or-flight response acts as a testament to the amazing machine we call the human body.


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Brandon, J. (2016, June 07). 4 Ways Stress Can Motivate You (and 1 Way It Can’t). Retrieved January 19, 2021, from

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Schraer, W. D. (1993). Biology: The study of life. Needham, MA: Prentice Hall.

Sterling, C. M., & Frings, D. (2016). Psychology squared: 100 concepts you should know. London: Apple Press.

Warrenburg, S.. (2004, May 26). Using fragrance as a stress-relief agent. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. 26. 169-169.

Norms, Metrics, & Media Madness: Webinar Panel Recap

By Allison Gutkowski & Kristopher Woung-Fallon

Marketers and advertising agencies have always conducted research. For decades, they have also tapped into the methodology and concepts from academic psychology. Traditional marketing research aims at answering questions related to branding, product development, advertising, or evaluating potential new markets. Basically, ask the people in that market what they think, which inherently had its issues. Then, in the 1990s, brain imaging (fMRI) and other neuroscience tools (EEG, etc.) made it possible to visualize the workings of the human brain. With an objective window into the mind (in theory), marketers soon hoped to bypass many of the problems associated with asking subjects overt questions with these tools.

There’s been a lot of chatter since then surrounding the use of neuro-measures in media with the use of metrics and norms for predictive purposes. It begs questions like, are norms a measure of mediocrity? What is a norm during times of global crisis? And, how does the industry’s need for metrics & norms align with neuroscientific output? Or does it?

In the webinar Norms, Metrics, & Media Madness: A Frank Discussion on Norms, Metrics, Neuroscience & Media Testing, we dive into these ideas and more with a panel of experts. Below, we cover several highlights of the live session on this engaging topic within the consumer research industry…

VP of Research & Innovation at HCD Research, Michelle Niedziela, PhD kicks off our panel discussion establishing an understanding of how normative databases are typically applied and defining some of the issues that can come up with their application here:

In this clip, Michelle explains how normative databases are typically used to understand what the general public is currently thinking compared to what they were thinking previously, and how the potential issues highlighted in this clip could drive the consumer experience, meaning that the database may not be as relevant if changes occur within the market.

Norms are somewhat of a “moving target.” Due to these constant changes in the market, there should be an established value in updating them as they evolve versus debating whether they are good or bad.

Watch Raymond Petit, Executive Director of the Masters of Science in Business Analytics at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego, explains this further when calling on the industry to define what a norm truly is scientifically and then upholding normative databases to that standard:

Many companies provide their own metrics and norms that are supposed to be generalized measures. What has been found is that there can be some form of bias. They may not be reflective of the general population or a “true norm.”

Anna Wexler, Assistant Professor in the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania speaks to this point in our panel discussion here:

In this clip, Anna raises the point of potential limitations in consumer neuroscience technology that could exclude specific segments in a given population if not considered, such as hair texture or length within varying demographics.

With neuroscientific measures, it is important to have relative baselines, or comparisons within subject, built into the research design.

Watch Vinod Venkatramann, PhD, Associate Professor in Marketing & Director of the Center for Applied Research in Decision Making at the Fox School of Business, Temple University, explain the value for reference in consumer neuroscience here:

In the context of ad testing, Vinod advises finding what the best reference could be for the kind of test that you are conducting and including those ads into your test, so you have both, how the new category is performing and how the reference fits within the past norms.

Vinod goes further to explain how when doing this you are correcting the individual differences at the physiological level and then looking at the relative change across different ads to see how they compare.

Whether it is pre-pandemic or in today’s new world, we should stop and think about how relevant the norms and metrics we rely on are. What goes into them? How is the data collected? Are they relevant to my product category? Are we seeing the full story?

It is important to critique any norm or metric in this way as many go/no-go decisions are often based on simple scores or comparisons to norms. Understanding potential strengths and limitations of not only the norms and metrics but also the way by which the data is collected, such as the number of electrodes on an EEG headset, will be vital to pressure testing how a norm or metric will work for you and your specific research question. If you are interested in connecting with Team HCD to discuss this trending topic further, please contact Allison Gutkowski (

Student Voices Series

Given the challenges of the current pandemic, students have been limited in immersive experiences globally due to the restrictions placed on in-person interaction. HCD Research sought to host a current student through virtual and project-based experiential learning activities to aid in this need. During the 2021 winter term, we are excited to welcome Alyssa Rotondo, a Muhlenberg College student, as a Scientific Communications Intern!

By supporting students to develop transferable skills and gain knowledge about Applied Consumer Neuroscience, future leaders- like Alyssa- will be well-equipped to find innovative solutions for challenging questions.

Meet Alyssa!

Alyssa Rotondo is a first-year student at Muhlenberg College majoring in Neuroscience on the Pre-Med track. She is originally from New York City but now resides in Holmdel, NJ. With great confidence, she describes herself as a people person and is intrigued by other people’s outlooks and stories. She is especially interested in experiences with people from uncommon backgrounds and environments to gain new and useful perspectives. Her personal passions include a great love of animals, humanity, and nature. 

She chose to pursue the medical field, in particular neuroscience, due to an experience that occurred recently when her grandmother fell victim to Alzheimer’s Dementia. She aspires to utilize ingenuity to confront this affliction, hoping to eradicate, or at least, alleviate this trauma. Through her time spent volunteering for organizations, she has gained insights and discovered that people stand to benefit much when offered comfort. Undoubtedly, Alyssa considers herself a STEM student, and holds in high regard similar disciplines as they provide balance, insight, and purpose as the broad challenges our world faces today demand fresh, bold outlooks. This is why she chose to engage in interdisciplinary studies which require a strong background in the liberal arts and believes that societies will witness true advancements in the future from the merging of contrasting fields from which we will draw upon repeatedly.

In the upcoming weeks, keep an eye out for Alyssa’s contributions to HCD’s “Student Voices” blog posts where she will be covering a variety of topics in the consumer research industry as well as her experience working with our team!

HCD’s 2021 New Year’s Resolution: Prove it

We did it. 2020 is behind us, and 2021 will be all about moving forward.

And at HCD, we plan to kick ass and take names in 2021.

In hindsight (it was 2020 after all), we did really well last year. Our research expanded with new products and new segments (and new clients). We had several new publications (including peer reviewed journal articles and book chapters). We presented to many different audiences via virtual webinars and conferences (including our own NeuroU).

But we also realize that there is a lot of work to be done moving forward with some new trends developing from changes driven in 2020.

  • There is an increase in need for remote consumer testing.
    • As such, we have increased our efforts in online testing of all sorts, including (but not limited to) online facial coding, online implicit testing, online qual research, smart speaker assisted research.
    • We will be expanding into DIY and On-Demand services, including implicit testing and other survey-based online tools for faster, cheaper research.
    • Remote testing has also brought to light some major issues with remote measures that we will continue to warn about and contend with:
      • Limitations of tools such as facial coding
      • Environmental distractions in participants’ homes

  • With several research providers struggling or certain services disappearing altogether, we will be expanding our media testing services. We will be promoting and expanding our AdverTest program and updating it with new and improved EEG capabilities.
    • We will be addressing major concerns around use of consumer neuroscience in prediction.
    • We also intend to address the issue of consumer neuroscience and blackbox metrics and norms.

So, this year we resolve to: PROVE IT

  • Prove that integrated methodologies provide a complete understanding of consumer response to products and communications.
  • Prove that accepting normative data from one methodology…neuroscience or surveys or other methods, is a measure of mediocrity and a flawed strategy.
  • Prove that market research is not defined by one method; it is defined as an amalgamation of tools that provide an answer that reflects reality.

So, stay tuned for more on our 2021: Prove It campaign!

Holiday Shopping in 2020: a behavioral science perspective

It’s been… a year.

Amid a U.S. presidential election and global pandemic, we’re entering the most unusual holiday season any of us have experienced before.

There’s been a lot of talk about all of the unprecedented this and adapting to that happening to consumers. And no time is this more evident of real behavioral changes than the holiday shopping season.

With the pandemic serving as a sort of catalyst to online purchasing and more digital services, the typical shopping habit cycles have been interrupted.

But what are habits? The habit loop is a tripart cyclical pattern consisting of cues, routines and rewards which strongly influence decision making by minimizing the cognitive effort. Your memory links the habit to specific contexts such as people, places, items, or times typically present during the overall repeated experience to sort of earmark when and how to do what needs to be done. The things that make up a habit include cues, routines, and rewards.

  • Cues: Kicks the brain into automatic mode telling it which habit to use
  • Routines: Physical, mental, or emotional response
  • Rewards: Prize telling your brain “this loop is worth remembering for the future”

Repeating the loop builds the strength of the habit to the point where it becomes part of our lifestyle. Consumer decision making relies on heuristics to help us decide which routines are most appropriate to get our desired outcomes. When it comes to shopping, certain cues from advertising, or layout of the products in the stores, or maybe special sales initiate the purchasing routine. Consumers are creatures of habit.

Breaking these habit cycles, our consumer lifestyles, can be challenging to say the very least.

According to Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, there are over 30,000 new products introduced every year, and 80 percent fail (2016). Christensen, widely regarded as one of the world’s top experts on innovation and growth and author of the theory of disruptive innovation, suggested that companies often fail in introducing new products because they study the wrong product and consumer data, leading them to unwittingly design innovation processes that “churn out mediocrity.”

When it comes to holiday shopping in 2020, the typical routine had to change. The 2020 holidays have truly tested retailers’ flexibility and adaptability.  With limited indoor everything, retailers adjusted sales from Black Friday (which became Black Friday Week) to Amazon Prime day being shifted earlier. An increased focus on health and safety, combined with financial concerns, has resulted in a shift in the way consumers spend their holiday budget.

More consumers are shopping online, a move that arguably would have happened despite COVID. For consumers, the movement toward digital has shown them the benefits and ease of online shopping, particularly in categories they previously might not have considered before the pandemic, such as groceries and household essentials. But also in planning, planning for seasonal changes and holiday gift buying.

2020 has also affected marketing plans. Advertisers, tasked with getting ahead of these adjusted habits, where shopping has started earlier and earlier, have had to find new ways to target consumers given their newfound buying behaviors. As more consumers spend time with digital content, advertisers have had to compete for screen space. Visibility will become more and more crucial for brands for a successful holiday season, and beyond. With the season starting earlier than ever, the annual spike in demand has lasted even longer than usual, making it that much more challenging (and important) to stand out amongst the crowd.

What can marketers do?

Make it easy:

It will be most important to provide an optimized, seamless digital consumer experience to meet consumers’ new expectations and needs. Innovations in e-commerce and advanced technology are getting better at creating a frictionless experience for online shoppers, which is especially important given consumers’ concerns about their health and safety. Retailers need to focus on addressing the customer service issues that will inevitably arise with the shopping season, particularly with the spike in online shopping. Improvements to e-commerce or mobile capabilities, as well as curbside pickup and returns, could help attract shoppers.

Watch your tone:

Given the uncertainty that the pandemic (and everything else with 2020) has brought, the tone of messaging of advertisements is more important than ever. Consumers want reassurance from brands they trust. Advertisers will need to double down on feel-good campaigns and end-of-year sales to make up for lost revenue and foot traffic during mandatory stay-at-home orders.  Providing authentic, personalized experiences, optimized content, and advanced audience targeting are key, but winning consumer hearts will require reaching them in the first place (and holding their attention long enough to make a meaningful connection). With many holiday shoppers avoiding physical stores to some degree, advertisers will need to look to meet consumer needs by focusing their marketing efforts on placing contextually relevant digital ads in safe and suitable environments. As always, context is key and awareness of this will be paramount in constructing marketing plans.

As always, HCD is happy to help with all of this with customized approaches to brand harmony and identifying consumer need-gaps. Our behavioral approach, combining psychology and neuroscience, has proven to be a winning way to better understand and meet consumers’ changing needs amid all the chaos of this past year.

As always, we’d love to hear from you, so please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or thoughts.


The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

Christensen, C.M., Hall T., Dillon, K., Duncan, D.S. (2016). Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice. HarperCollins Publishers, New York.

It depends, and it’s complicated… What the Health?!

The health and wellness sector has demonstrated tremendous growth over the past few years, which has encouraged brands to explore the space more in depth to meet consumer expectations. Although the market is expanding rapidly to meet demand, entering the health and wellness space is not as simple as it may appear at first glance. The innovation in this market category requires not only a well-thought-out approach but also consumer trust. The healthcare and overall health of the consumer should be at the forefront of decisions while developing the products, packaging and communications.  Consumers interested in integrating mindful products into their everyday lives entrust companies to conduct quality research in order to make informed decisions about the items or ingredients representing the brand. Breaking down the target consumer, ethical and legal concerns, and ways to execute a strong research plan are just an overview of the many components involved in the health and wellness space. To gain more insights, advice and examples about this topic, check out HCD’s webinar “What the Health?! Consumer Research in the Wellness Market” presented by Michelle Niedziela, PhD and Martha Bajec, PhD. 

The Conscious Consumer

The health and wellness category is an umbrella term for a lot of items: vitamins, supplements, stationaries, creams, smoothies, blankets, etc., and this market continues to expand as more and more products pivot to somehow address mental and physical wellbeing. Looking to find ways to curb the stress and anxiety, a specific group in the market is emerging—the conscious consumer. Some characteristics include being interested in holistic approaches to healthcare and actively engaged in preventative opposed to reactive strategies. Additionally, the conscious consumer has an awareness of environmental impacts sown into this narrative, since the objective to optimize health and wellbeing extends to the notion of a clean, natural, and sustainable lifestyle. (You can hear Michelle touch more on the profile of the conscious consumer here). Through those purchase behaviors, the conscious consumer is taking control of personal health by focusing on long-term benefits via small, consistent decisions. 

The attention put towards product decisions to help consumers best achieve health and wellbeing goals involves marketers listening to those new needs. Consumers are taking an interest in understanding the ingredients within a product and knowing the benefits or limitations of a service. The behavioral shift in priorities to focus on self-care requires marketers and developers to adjust the products to better serve their audience. Through careful planning and consideration, highlighting specific values of products can shift expectations. Recognizing the fast pace of most consumers’ lives should be reflected on products, packages or communications. Consumers want information shared in a concise manner, while still being informative. Learning how to communicate with the target demographic through strategies such as simple language or clear infographics can keep consumers engaged; however, misleading messaging can lead to negative consequences.

A Note on Ethics

Consumer research in the health and wellness market depends on clear definitions of terms and uses. Unfortunately, the wide spectrum of goods and services within this category results in a vague definition of what is dictated as market or clinical research. Wellness items can be categorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a food, food additive, cosmetic, dietary supplement or drug (Dronkers, Krist, Van Overveld & Rijkers, 2018). The regulations and requirements that must be upheld legally are based on how the product is labeled. If the product is intended to treat a disease or disorder, clinical trials are required by the FDA, while items considered a dietary supplement may not need the same level of consent.

Other government organizations, like the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), are predicted to follow the FDA’s lead by placing regulations on some health and wellness products such as probiotics (Aleixandre-Tudó, Castelló-Cogollos, Aleixandre, & Aleixandre-Benavent, 2019). However, since requirements currently vary depending on how the product is categorized, companies themselves must reflect on the specific intentions of the product. The safety of the consumer is imperative when considering if it could be perceived as a potential treatment. The fundamental questions about the type, the intention and the claims of the product truly impact the making and marketing of it. By reflecting on the specific product details, the research question can cater to major concerns and result in stronger, more valuable findings.  

Companies must uphold a level of accountability when a claim is made to meet the standards of government agencies and consumers. Legal ramifications may result from an improper claim while trying to fit into the niche market of health and wellness. From R&D, to branding, to packaging, the product should uphold a level of efficacy as a viable option for consumers. Scientific evidence can create strong proof to guide the exploration. As noted by Michelle here, “This allusiveness creates both opportunity for people to create new products, but also confusion for companies looking to take advantage of the wellness movement.” While it may be challenging to distinguish prevention from treatment, it’s crucial to take concern over the type of claim being made and strategize how to best describe a product authentically.

How Would You Measure It?

Trying to introduce a new product or reposition the brand into the health and wellness space involves a lot of uncertainty. Yet, there are many potential avenues to explore as a means to test and adjust the product, package or communications prior to making a full launch. The best research options are subjective based on the type of product being tested as well as the question being asked. Luckily, a lot of tools and research methods are available, making it feasible to determine the best methods for your particular question.

Consumers perceive and process cues differently based on context and experience; therefore, reactions can vary from certain sample populations. Selecting the target demographic is a really important decision because external factors (i.e. health, age, sex, etc.) make it challenging to minimize confounds. While keeping a tight sample of participants is always the best, it is important to be realistic during recruitment.  Seeking out “unicorns” may be great for a directional exploration but may be unrealistic for claims research since the sample size may be too low. Considering time, objectives, and budget constraints can help determine the best recruitment route for health and wellness research.

Health and wellness research can include something as simple as a survey or an interview to the use of psychophysiological tools or eye tracking and be as involved as collecting blood or urine samples. The location of the research is dependent on the methodology utilized. Some research opportunities permit home use tests (HUT) to learn about the product performance and evaluation in a natural usage environment. More invasive research will need to involve a clinical research organization (CRO) to help manage the study, whereas a market research facility may be acceptable for higher-level, noninvasive experiments. Revisiting how the product is being used can help determine the level of granularity necessary within the research design. Furthermore, the potential need for an ethics committee such as an Independent Review Board (IRB), a Research Ethics Committee (REC) or a General Medical Council (GMC) should also be considered when making a research plan. By having the information about the protocol organized and structured early in the exploration phase, it will eventually help promote a better understanding of the measured effect.

Jiving with the Concept

The possibilities are endless when it comes to researching novel avenues within health and wellness. Part of the fun in researching new ideas within product, packaging and communications is recognizing the endless possibilities (for better or for worse). Particular goods or services may fit directly in the “wellness world,” while others try to blend in through small, meaningful pivots. Keeping a pulse on consumer preferences helps to determine if that particular innovation is actually worth pursuing. Martha summarizes this point beautifully here in stating, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Make sure the extra health benefit is enticing to consumers. Chasing a health halo, aka overestimating the healthfulness and wellbeing of an item based on its appearance or communications, may be displeasing to the consumer if the experience doesn’t meet the expectation. For example, if you are craving a greasy bag of chips after a long day, indulging in a package advertising a new recipe with 70% less saturated fat may be less satisfying. Learn what values of the product are important to the consumer and emulate those characteristics in the packaging and communications. To put it simply: grow with the consumer, rather than against them. 

The New Product 2.0+

It is safe to say consumers want more from products. From Goldfish Veggie Crackers containing a third serving of vegetables to Dr. Organic Extra Whitening Charcoal Toothpaste, consumers want the product to solve additional deficiencies. Pushing multipurpose items as a way to solve some problems allows for an easy opportunity to address consumer values. If cream can act as a moisturizer while also having SPF in it, then two pain points are being addressed in one product. However, it is important to consider consumer needs and ask if consumers will agree with merging two items. Researching consumer interest, likability, or believability may help prevent spending a lot of money on a product that flops in market. Throughout the research process, it is important to periodically take a moment to reflect on the goals and accomplishments needed to succeed.

Martha brings up an easy way to start your thought-process on wellness product innovation. She suggests considering the downstream effect by thinking about how these products may be used by your friends and family. The product itself, as well as the claims or packaging, is relied on by the consumer to uphold its promises. By conducting the best research feasible and creating a strong end product, consumers’ validation will prove itself through longevity and loyalty in buying behavior.

For great examples of the complexities within the health and wellness space and where this field is going next, please listen to Michelle and Martha chat more in depth in our “What the Health?!” webinar available on Youtube! Additionally, if you are interested in conducting research within the dynamic space of health and wellness, please contact Allison Gutkowski (   


Dronkers, T. M. G., Krist, L., Van Overveld, F. J., & Rijkers, G. T. (2018). The ascent of the blessed: Regulatory issues on health effects and health claims for probiotics in Europe and the rest of the world. Beneficial microbes9(5), 717-723.

Aleixandre-Tudó, J. L., Castelló-Cogollos, L., Aleixandre, J. L., & Aleixandre-Benavent, R. (2019). Tendencies and Challenges in Worldwide Scientific Research on Probiotics. Probiotics and antimicrobial proteins, 1-13.

Do You See What I See? Making the Most of Eye-Tracking in Retail

Coauthored by HCD’s VP of Research & Innovation, Michelle Niedziela, PhD, and Manager of Behavioral & Marketing Sciences, Kathryn Ambroze

As seen in the retail issue of NMSBA’s INsights mag…

When investigating consumer behavior and decision making during the shopping experience, eye-tracking remains a popular tool in consumer retail research. But there is more to eye-tracking than “meets the eye.” As eye-tracking technology continues to advance, so do the metrics used to better explore and understand the consumer’s shopping process.

What’s in a Metric?

Through building strong experimental designs and analysis plans, the quality of the eye-tracking data remains focused on understanding the real value of behavioral responses. More than just heat maps of what the consumer is looking at, objective data collected from eye-tracking can provide context to the experience beyond self-report, sharing covert consumer behaviors such as gaze sequences, dwell timing or revisits on certain areas of an exposure.

The dimensions of eye-tracking research can quickly become daunting if the research is not guided by a goal-driven research design. Understanding the research question is imperative for deciding which components of eye-tracking will best explain the experience. Reading a label may require different metrics than website usability research. Eye movement also varies depending on factors such as tasks or goals (Rayner, 2009). Saccades, which are movement shifts, or fixations, a moment of focused stillness, serve different functions. Therefore, both eye movements are useful in special situations depending on the circumstances. For example, consider an ad working to better communicate the product. Novel concepts are typically only gathered during fixations, making it a better indicator of specific information acquisitions. Heat maps are a great overview of an experience, but so much more information can be uncovered from metrics such as time to first fixation (how long it takes to focus on a pre-determined area or item) or sequence analysis (the attentional order). Considering the influence of the type of stimuli is important while evaluating the outputs, since the task and context are a huge component of decision making. A goal-driven research design would specify both the type of stimulus being evaluated and the appropriate success metric.

Dancing on a Fine Line: Control vs Realistic Designs

In developing protocols for experiments, the key is to find the right balance of intervention to keep the participant’s behaviors authentic. The overall experience is intended to capture the normal buying performance through tools of minimal interference. Measures such as the standardized shopping journey, eye-tracking metrics, and behavioral coding will be elaborated on to evaluate as tools to develop strong, goal-driven research design.  

When considering the consumer shopping experience, consumer research seeks a naturalistic observation of shopping behavior, without guidance or interruption of the participant. Elicitation is often required by the researcher for commonly used qualitative methods, such as shop-along and speak-aloud research, thus interrupting the behavior. However, for analytical purposes, creating a uniform groundwork is important so each participant is run through a similar scenario. To set the stage, a script can be read to each participant to establish a framework. Furthermore, the directions for the shopper mission can be clearly indicated for participants to follow. The shopper mission can be challenging to develop, as it requires a great deal of consideration regarding the exact goals of the research (e.g. finding a specific product, navigating a floor plan, utilizing a kiosk). By categorizing sections of particular merchandising stimuli and behavioral tasks, comparisons can be drawn to better evaluate the shopping experience. Standardizing tasks through the shopper mission gives shape to the overall research, thus keeping the situation controlled via context.

Eye-tracking studies in consumer research often bracket specific areas of interest (AOIs) to give an understanding of responses to different items within the same exposure. The breakdown of AOIs helps to explain what is visually attended to or ignored. Furthermore, AOIs give an in-depth indication of the participants activity interacting with the places of most concern by including features such as dwell time or revisits to the AOI. These additions help to explain what parts of a stimulus are receiving more attention from the consumers who viewed it, allowing for diagnostic and actionable results to be reported to clients on ways to improve retail experiences.

Another simple but important way to design controls within a naturalistic experience includes behavioral coding of certain tasks. Having notable behavioral codes embedded in the research design keeps the experience more naturalistic, while those small actions vs inactions provide more data.  Linking these behavioral codes with measurements of timing provides a lot of information that would otherwise be overlooked (i.e. Did the participant view the logo within the first 30 seconds of exposure?). By having a loose timeframe rather than a definitive end for the shopper mission, it allows for a naturalistic setting without additional pressure to complete a task.

The integration of eye-tracking and behavioral coding within a standardized shopping experience enhances goal-driven research design. Capturing authentic consumer responses is valuable for developing strong findings, and ultimately useful brand insights.

At First Glance: A Case Study

When a consumer views a product on a shelf, the packaging includes functional and aesthetic characteristics to communicate brand identity and create expectations for both its sensory and branding aspects. Interrupting the consumer experience at the shelf by interviewing the consumer or having him/her take a survey while shopping can disrupt and distract from the experience, making it difficult, if not impossible, to assess true, naturalistic behavior. Passive measures, such as gaze behavior, can help to assess the shopper experience without interruption.

To gain new insights into the design of product displays and aisle kiosks for a client, the consumer shopping experience was analyzed using behavioral eye-tracking measures (with outputs such as fixation counts, duration, time to first fixation, etc.). After being set-up with eye-tracking glasses, shoppers were given time to explore the aisle with the shopping goal of choosing a new product for a remodeling project. After natural browsing, shoppers were then instructed to find a specified type of product (with specific features: X or Y). Once the task was completed, shoppers completed an online survey.

By analyzing how the display was integrated into the aisle as well as the consumer’s response to it, the impact of the display on the shopper’s behavior and experience was evaluated. Eye-tracking captured where visual attention was initially drawn, as well as the subsequent fixation sequences. Search duration and gaze sequences, especially when paired with the qualitative survey responses, uncovered the ease or difficulty participants had in finding products or features within the display. This output provided a diagnostic solution for specific visual components to accentuate for future improvements. Additionally, the eye-tracking paired with the online survey shared the ergonomic style sought after when searching for a product. The structure and materials of the package itself can help items stand-out among a crowded aisle.

Overall results from this research suggested the display was well-received, and shoppers liked the organization and variety in the display. The location of the display influenced shoppers’ visual attention. Most shoppers noticed the display when it was in the center of the aisle instead of the endcap, where it was overlooked. By using eye-tracking and behavioral coding during a standardized shopping experience, the key visual factors which have an influence on the experience were detected. Furthermore, the micro decisions within gaze behavior pared with the survey responses give insight into consumer cognition, sharing a unique vantage point of the shopper experience.

Finding a Happy Medium

By striking a balance between realistic stimuli and controlled points of measurements, eye-tracking data, especially when used with a goal-driven research design, provides unique and powerful insight about consumer experience with advertising, in-store merchandising, and other marketing stimuli. Through incorporating the latest eye-tracking technology and analysis tools, combined with a behavioral approach to research, HCD has been able to go beyond traditional retail experience research and dive deeper for true actionable results.


Krishna, A. (2012). An integrative review of sensory marketing: Engaging the senses to affect perception, judgment and behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22(3), 332–351.

Lindstrom, M. (2006). Brand Sense: How to Build Powerful Brands Through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight and Sound. Strategic Direction, 22(2), 80–81.

Rayner, K. (2009). Eye movements and attention in reading, scene perception, and visual search. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology62(8), 1457–1506.

The Packaging Love Story

Ah, the package – the start of many great love stories. A package sets expectations and provides promises of what our experiences will be. It can be the start of a great love story or great disappointment if our expectations are not met.

This love story could start on an impulse- the color, shape, the je ne sais pas of the product that catches your eye in the HomeGoods checkout line. Never in your life did you realize you needed this product, but in that moment, you have never been so certain of anything in your entire life.

Or maybe your story starts a bit more old fashioned. You are in the shampoo aisle uncapping and experiencing every suitor, like a carefully choreographed Renaissance dance, thoroughly evaluating all of your options, studying their pedigree and making an attentive selection.

No matter the start of this love story, it usually begins with anticipation and expectation. So how can we ensure our consumers experience the perfect fit- where their expectations are fulfilled, and their epic love story prevails?  While there is certainly no one-size-fits-all answer or method, there should be a carefully developed process that starts at the infancy of product development and is carried through the product life cycle.

Today, lets focus in on how just a few tools from applied behavioral neuroscience can help establish sound building blocks during the packaging process.

Consumer Understanding:

One thing is for certain, products can play major roles in our daily routines and become engrained in our habits. And when these products are optimized for our behaviors, they can make a world of difference.

If you parent, you may remember the joys of diaper changing. While you may have never expected it to be pleasant, the parenting books should have warned you better about how your child will inevitably squirm, wiggle and attempt to free themselves of whatever surface you have laid them on. Oh, and while your child is reenacting a prison break, you must go through a multi-step process consisting of several products that can make an already unpleasant job dang near impossible.

Starting from ground zero and understanding these daily routines and behaviors is the first step to optimizing the packages we rely so heavily upon. One example of how we can do this is by diagnosing and quantifying the behaviors that go into the routines and habits with the use of behavioral coding.  Through the use of videos capturing the routine, we can quantify behaviors- for example, the number of wipes used on the baby or the duration of time it took to open a package or tube of diaper cream. Quantifying behaviors allows us to break down routines into their most basic forms and diagnose areas for optimization which can be used as benchmarks for new product prototypes. Furthermore, the use of methods, such as facial coding (professional facial coder, not automatic), can help us better understand potentially sticky points or pressure points within a routine.

Beyond central location behavioral assessments, consumers can be recruited for at-home exploration especially when larger sample sizes are preferred. In addition, groundbreaking applications, such as smart-speaker technology (i.e. Amazon’s Alexa) can be leveraged to help better understand and quantify behaviors. The benefits of smart-speaker technology is that it allows us to collect data in-the-moment, at-home, when our hands are otherwise occupied- think cooking, personal care routines, or securing a wiggling baby perhaps. Smart speakers can help us understand duration and frequency of behaviors within a given routine.

When both behavioral approaches are complimented with traditional self-reported insights, we can develop a deeper understanding of consumer routines and habits and how packages fit into those routines. Functionality and optimization of those packages are brought to the forefront, thus creating behaviorally-driven package designs that support consumers’ daily routines and habits.

Optimizing Design:

While a behaviorally-driven design is vital, the package real estate, messaging, graphics and claims must also be carefully considered to encourage and secure that place in a consumer’s routine. The communication and creative development process for a package can be no short of extensive at times.

Traditional tools for prioritizing consumer needs for a product category, such as MaxDiff, and psychological methods for uncovering perceptions, such as Implicit Association Testing, help ensure the right message for your brand is being conveyed. Integrating these methods ensures an understanding of what is driving a consumer and how these needs are currently being fulfilled (or not fulfilled) by the brand.

Uncovering implicit and automatic perceptions along the development process help to develop a deeper understanding of who you are as a brand and where white space opportunities are available in the product category.

Going further and ensuring that this communication strategy is being seen is crucial to making a meaningful impact with your consumers. Simple tools such as eye tracking, whether in person or online, can uncover how a consumer is navigating your pack and what is being seen or not seen.

Insights from eye tracking help optimize package layout and identify winning packaging variations that will work hard and efficiently for the brand to convey promises and expectations for the consumers.

In-Environment Success:

Of course, all of the above stated methods mean nothing if consumers do not see or cannot find your product on the shelf or online! Confirming your package can break through the clutter and competition and can be found easily by shoppers is the gateway to enhancing their experience with the product.

Leveraging behavioral coding and eye tracking allow us to uncover shopping behaviors and how the consumer naturally navigates an aisle environment when shopping for a specific product category or shopping for a specific product SKU. Eye-tracking and behavioral coding allow us to quantify and compare package performance by revealing metrics such as time to first fixation on the pack, how long the pack was looked at, touched or purchased. Furthermore, it tells about natural paths of navigation in a given environment, visual attention ‘vampires,’ and when paired with self-reported qualitative feedback, is able to provide understanding of the cognitive take-aways from the shopping experience.

Whether your love story starts with the catch of the eye or careful consideration, leveraging methods from applied behavioral neuroscience, such as eye tracking, behavioral coding, implicit testing, smart-speaker technology and more, can help you put the consumer at the center of behaviorally-driven designs, ensure messaging is being seen, consumer needs are being fulfilled, and ensure your package can break through the noise and be found with ease.

For more on HCD’s take on Packaging Research with the consumer in mind, register and tune into our upcoming webinar, “Products, Promises, & Packaging, Oh my!” on November 17th at 12PM EST with Executive VP, Marcella Markman, and Director of Global Research, Allison Gutkowski at the link here.

The Neuroimaging Games: Who will come out on top?

Neuroimaging tools offer a lot of information by providing insight into the structure and function of the nervous system. The concept of functional neuroimaging involves creating several images of the brain to identify changes over time. Neuroimaging allows researchers to analyze the structure, function and pharmacology of the brain. The techniques and methods vary based on the research goals, but some neuroimaging tools are becoming more mainstream for commercial use. It’s important to have conversations about the drawbacks and limitations of neuroimaging, since the technology continues to advance as researchers seek out best practices for understanding the brain. Productive discussions about benefits and limitations promote good ideas to help make improvements and really find out if one champions the rest.   

Neuroimaging can be divided into two approaches of exploring neural firing: a direct measure recording electrical activity and an indirect measurement which subscribes to the assumption increased blood flow and metabolic responses are a result of neural activity (Bunge & Kahn, 2009). Electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) are techniques which directly measure electrical activity in the brain, while methods such as positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) detect increased blood flow and metabolic activity as a means of indirectly measuring brain activity. Reviewing the technology available for a comprehensive understanding of the various approaches to viewing brain activity gives insight into current capabilities, as well as conceptualizes how the field can progress. Diving into both direct and indirect measures of neuroimaging will help determine which (if any) of these tools are best applicable to certain research designs.  

Straight Shot: Direct Measures of Neuroimaging

EEG is valued for its ability to record neural activity in real time. While it is sometimes debated if EEG qualifies as neuroimaging since it does not take a snapshot of the brain, the technology can provide a graphical representation of brain activity allowing it to qualify as a neuroimaging modality. Furthermore, advanced quantitative EEG (qEEG) provides a visual representation of neurofeedback (Figure 1). How does it work? The net flow of electrical current is determined using electrical dipoles which helps to give a global context of different brain states (Bunge & Kahn, 2009). Similarly, the electrical activity occurring in the brain is used to determine the magnetic field during an MEG (Figure 2). The scan both detects and amplifies the magnetic signals and develops a magnetic source image which shows any abnormal activity in the brain. MEG and EEG can have high temporal sampling rates, with MEG reaching as fast as 1200 samples per second (hertz) and EEG being anywhere from 250-2000 hertz, depending on the type of headset used (Boto et al., 2019). Commercial-grade EEG headsets are available to the public with prices ranging from as little as $200 to well over $25,000. The prices vary based on how many electrodes are included in the cap. MEG scanners cost upwards of 2 million dollars each, and renting the equipment is an hourly rate of a few hundred dollars. While cheaper EEG sets may be tempting to utilize, it is important to consider the quality of the output if limited sensors are used.    

Figure 1: A pictorial representation of brain activity being mapped via qEEG  from Penrod (2018).

Source localization, or knowing where the signal is coming from, is a big drawback when using direct neuroimaging measures. EEG and MEG struggle to isolate the precise origin of the signal. Using an academic-grade EEG cap permits more sampling from neurons than MEG; however, it struggles to get a clear signal due to the interaction with the skull and scalp. Additionally, the mesh cap required for an EEG cannot have the muscles move around the head because it increases inaccurate data referred to as artifact. Magnetic fields are unaffected by the skull and scalp; thus, making MEG a better option for localization between the two direct measures, but not by much. The sensitivity to poor spatial resolution is hard to resolve; however, if the research aims to achieve a global understanding of the brain with a strong temporal reading, either EEG or MEG may be the preferred neuroimaging option.

Figure 2: MEG set up for recording magnetic fields to explore brain activity. 

Winding Around for a Winning Way: Indirect Measures of Neuroimaging

Indirect brain imaging involves a few different approaches. The BOLD response (blood oxygen level dependent) is the standard technique used in fNIRS and MRI technology. When neurons need oxygen to be replenished, as messages are being communicated throughout the body, a protein in our blood called hemoglobin delivers the oxygen to neural activation sites. This type of response is referred to as a hemodynamic response (Bunge & Kahn, 2009). Measuring levels of oxygenated hemoglobin is collected by both MRI and fNIRS; however, it is in different ways. The MRI records the magnetic field difference when blood changes from oxygenated to deoxygenated, while NIRS reports on cerebral oxygenation, blood flow and metabolic activity of regions in the brain by reviewing the absorption of light.

The fNIRS methodology came along in 1977 by Frans Jöbsis at Duke University. Professor Jöbsis measured oxygen levels to analyze neural activity and hemodynamic responses (Quaresima & Ferrari, 2019). Light is used in fNIRS to gain information about blood volume, flow and oxygenation by either being absorbed into, transmitted through, reflected off, or scattered into a medium (such as skin, bones, etc.). Optical technology sends infrared light into the tissue and reports on the light that is scattered back. The difference between the original intensity of the light emitted compared to the amount returned gives insight into concentration of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood and brain activity levels (Quaresima & Ferrari, 2019). This methodology detects concentration changes in light absorption (aka the amount of oxygenated or deoxygenated blood at that moment). By obtaining concentrations over time, the images project neural activation responding to stimuli which results in an increased blood flow to the activated area. A compelling reason to use fNIRS is also due to its ability to differentiate between deoxygenated and oxygenated blood; however, it is accomplished through differences in optical properties.

Figure 3: An example of an fNIRS set-up with the cap.

Other indirect imaging includes PET scans which work by detecting gamma rays via a radioactive tracer. PET scans provide visual information about biochemical changes in    neurotransmitters through the metabolic activity of cells in body tissue. However, PET scans are extremely expensive, have poor temporal resolution and require a radioactive injection (Bunge & Kahn, 2009). Due to the need to remain completely still during this test,  certain populations may not be the best candidates, such as children or patients with uncontrollable movement (i.e. Parkinson’s disease). The motion tolerance obstacles hold true for fMRI as well, since it requires participants to remain completely stationary in a narrow tube, sometimes leading to the onset of anxiety, dizziness or claustrophobia. The fMRI scan creates images by using magnetic fields and pulses of radio wave energy. Since the fMRI acts as a giant magnet, it is also unsafe for individuals with implants. The fNIRS method is an up-and-coming technology to make neuroimaging a more naturalistic and comfortable experience (Figure 3). Optode sensors on fNIRS technology are intentionally tight on the scalp, to minimize movement, yet it still allows participants to fidget or walk without major interruptions to the recording (Quaresima & Ferrari, 2019). The freedom to stand during an fNIRS procedure opens doors for the exploratory neurofeedback of more realistic and interactive research.

Let’s Get Deep: The Truth about Neuroimaging

While the expansions in neuroimaging technology are very exciting, the limitations of what can actually be accomplished must be at the forefront of any research conversation. Neuroscientists are often excited by the concept of mapping the brain as a means to link neural activity to subjective experiences (i.e. emotions). It does sound enticing to use a neuroimaging scan to suggest certain mechanisms are associated with XYZ, but it can undermine the complexity of the brain. Overemphasizing one mechanism’s function can make the idea of mindreading seem not too far off, but to be clear: no measure discussed in this blog has the ability to read anyone’s mind. It is important to recall how areas of the brain have multiple uses which may result in contradictory functions. Activation and inhibition are constantly occurring in the brain for a multitude of reasons that may or may not include the emotional stimuli being researched. Additionally, variability among individuals makes it even more challenging to promote such claims. These tools have a space to truly give unique insights into the brain’s interconnectedness, but researchers must be cautioned to not rely on any one tool to give the full picture… (pun intended).  

Additionally, collecting data may be hindered based on the neuroimaging tool used. Specific brain areas, depending on the equipment being used, are much harder to read than others due to penetration depth. For example, fNIRS can only read roughly 1.5 cm into the cortex. Places such as the forehead and top of the head are easiest to get signals from with fNIRS, but it cannot reach deeper brain areas such as the cingulate cortex or the olfactory cortex (Quaresima & Ferrari, 2019). The MRI scan can measure deep brain structures that fNIRS is unable to achieve without major artifact. EEG is also capable of having signal depth of the whole brain; however, it can easily be clouded by noise and electrical crosstalk. EEG has more flexibility than MEG in terms of recording capabilities, since MEG requires the recording activity to be parallel to the surface of the brain, limiting where information is picked up (Boto, 2019). PET scans can also retrieve information encompassing the whole brain; however, images can be misinterpreted based on how the tracer reacts to inflammatory conditions, high blood sugar and small tumors.     

Among the Neuroimaging Nominees—Who’s the Winner? 

While comparing the different potential methodologies, each technology has a lot of limitations and benefits. The PET scan is the most expensive and invasive protocol discussed, requiring additional compensation for its nuclear component. The MEG data easily merges with anatomical fMRI or EEG scans to give a comprehensive analysis of brain activity; however, MEG lacks versatility to measure different head shapes and explore naturalistic paradigms (Boto et al., 2019). Although fMRI has similar restraints, it can indicate complex patterns of neuroclassification, activation trends across populations and determine engrossing stimuli. It also has greater signal depth and special resolution compared to fNIRS. Due to the optical technology, fNIRS can only evaluate the surface, therefore having a fast temporal reaction to fMRI. Yet, the BOLD response is slower than EEG, which analyzes electrical impulses in muscle activity, but has much higher sensitivity to noise. fMRI is also prone to statistical biases and noise from the machine, or brain activity can corrupt the data.

For multimodality studies, fNIRS may be the best option due to its portability and cost-efficient characteristics. The fNIRS machine has relatively few accessories and is easily transported. Additionally, fNRIS is an excellent option to test challenging populations such as infants, people with implants, or those with special needs. The ability to move around also affords a naturalistic experimental paradigm where participants can be embedded in real scenarios rather than conformed to a tube. Improvements to fNIRS are still being engineered to make the headgear lighter and more comfortable. Some obstacles when trying to record with fNIRS include running participants with thicker and darker hair, like dreads, because it interferes with the sensor reading. The back of participants’ heads, where hair is most dense, can also be a challenging area to get a strong sensor reading. fNIRS is also easily integrated with fMRI, EEG, PET or event-related potential to compensate for the lack of anatomical information and spatial resolution (Quaresima & Ferrari, 2019).  

Deciding among the various neuroimaging scans truly does depend on the type of research being conducted. Many oncology patients must undergo a PET scan as a means of learning the status of potential tumors, while other populations may be hesitant to undergo imaging involving radiation. Furthermore, if the research is seeking a similar tool to fMRI, but has a smaller budget, fNRIS may be a better fit. The cost of neuroimaging can be a major deterrent, making equipment such as fMRI, PET and MEG less feasible in consumer research. By asking questions not only about the neuroimaging applications, but also context of the research question, determining the correct approach will emerge. Neuroimaging technology is progressing and becoming more prevalent by expanding from universities and hospitals to industries such as marketing, entertainment, public health and communications. The expansion into new disciplines encourages refining existing methods while also increasing opportunities to critically think about the value of the data compared to the expense of the research. Making sure the new technological advancements bring additional value to the project is imperative to ensure sophisticated analysis of the data that is validated and interpreted with confidence.       


Boto, E., Seedat, Z. A., Holmes, N., Leggett, J., Hill, R. M., Roberts, G., … & Barnes, G. R. (2019). Wearable neuroimaging: combining and contrasting magnetoencephalography and electroencephalography. NeuroImage201, 116099.

Bunge, S. A., & Kahn, I. (2009). Cognition: An overview of neuroimaging techniques.

Penrod, J. M. (2018). Innovating the Mind: Three Essays on Technology, Society, and Consumer Neuroscience (Doctoral dissertation, Virginia Tech).

Quaresima, V., & Ferrari, M. (2019, September). A mini-review on functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS): where do we stand, and where should we go?. In Photonics (Vol. 6, No. 3, p. 87). Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute.