Category Archives: Blog

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.

Augmented Reality

The term augmented reality (AR) originally may have been overshadowed in the public eye by virtual reality (VR); however, its technology is more frequently being intertwined in everyday life. Apps like Pokémon GO and IKEA Place are filling our phones with content equipped with AR technology to help elevate its use. AR adds new components into a space of pre-existing objects in the real world. Blending physical and virtual worlds in real-time further simulates an immersive environment, making applications of AR valuable to marketers, educators, entertainers, and engineers. Funding for research is a promising inkling into the growth of AR technology, with the industry expected to reach $7.9 billion by 2023 globally (Caboni & Hagberg, 2019). Implementing AR into research has a lot of potential, thus having a foundational understanding of what it is and how it impacts research designs is vital for fresh innovation.   

How does augmented reality work?

AR can be defined as a form of mixed reality which aligns both real and virtual objects within the same dimensions of space and time (Van Krevelen & Poelman, 2010). Most people associate AR with changing the visual environment; however, when reality is being augmented, it is not confined to one sensory experience. Visuals, sounds, vibrational movements and smells can all contribute to an augmented reality. The original intention of AR use was for fields such as the military, medicine and industry, but it has now expanded to gaming, retail and commerce (Caboni & Hagberg, 2019).

VR covers every pixel within a visual environment (creating an entirely new environment separate from reality), while AR enhances the natural current environment with the superposition of additional context, such as music or text (and can include any number of sensory environmental additions from audible to visual, smell, taste, and haptics). AR may overlay a video-feed of reality, share the real-world perception with transparent filters and/or project AR onto real displays (Van Krevelen & Poelman, 2010). The displays are projected via headpieces, cellphones, tablets, laptops, or projectors (such as flashlights, holographs, etc.). The versatility of AR inspires a lot of potential opportunities to deliver a valuable experience within multiple disciplines.

Possibilities Are Endless

Developing simple and easy integration of AR into daily life helps make the technology more ubiquitous. Currently the three main applications of augmented reality are online, in-store and mobile:

  • Online: The use of a webcam allows consumers to scan both their bodies and movements to have a virtual fitting-room. Consumers can immediately see the look of the outfits on the screen and have the agency to change sizes, colors, and styles quickly. Zenni Optical has a “Virtual Try-On” which integrates pupil distance information to display how frame styles look on consumers’ faces. By taking a 3D picture, consumers can view the different frames scaled to fit. 
  • In-store: To engage consumers while in the store, videos and projectors are used to personalize the experience via AR. Cosmetic brands, such as Sephora, superimpose different make-up products on consumers via an “augmented mirror.” Similarly, dressing rooms with AR technology have been adopted by retail stores. The “augmented mirror” allows consumers to visualize how potential new clothes look on their bodies without changing their initial outfits. With the augmented mirror, the consumer can mix and match outfits from the store’s inventory, compare pictures of different clothes and share potential choices quickly with friends (Caboni & Hagberg, 2019). Having an AR in-store experience is interactive, informative and versatile, giving consumers ease in exploring a multitude of options in an efficient manner.   
  • Mobile Augmented Reality (MAR): Most consumers utilize a smartphone, camera, or tablet within their daily lives. Many companies turned to mobile apps as a way to connect with consumers more intimately. With the AR technology embedded in the app, consumers can try products in the places where they will be utilized, whether that be trying on an outfit at home or buying new décor for an office space. Self-augmentation increases the interaction the brand has with the consumer (Caboni & Hagberg, 2019). Snapchat has monetized on MAR by offering sponsored filters from companies ranging from Applebee’s Bar and Grill to Disney’s Frozen II. These initiatives break down the barrier between the brand and a consumer’s personal space, thus making it easier to integrate an item from a store to home.  

The three main approaches of augmented reality are applicable to many industries. Doctors use AR for training and operating purposes, while it provides patients with medicine reminders (Chen et al., 2019). AR navigation or warning displays guide individuals through a visitor experience in places like historic sites to large malls (Van Krevelen & Poelman, 2010). Retail also uses AR to share a plethora of information about any product without even opening the package. Additionally, the technology allows consumers to explore multiple products in various styles quickly while giving companies an idea of which features are preferred.

What does AR look like in Marketing Research?

The goal when exploring any new technology for market research focuses on whether its application can help better understand consumers. Integrating AR with qualitative research, such as a shop-along, allows for a full, uninterrupted experience of consumer decisions. Insight into consumer preference is also easily done with AR research since different prototypes can be redesigned quickly. Likewise, getting data on predominant categories selected from augmented facts or values about a product can give an indication of consumers points of concern. As a new form of research, AR will only continue to become more prevalent as technology advances and consumers are normalized to it. Furthermore, the balance of entertainment, education, esthetic and escapism promotes consistent engagement during AR experiences, thus encouraging market researchers to dive into its applications in research design.

Market research can easily utilize AR for exposure to various stimuli without changing the physical environment. An empty space is a blank canvas for anything to be programmed into an AR device for researchers to build upon. Using the AR system ensures each condition is presented uniformly from the same perspective. Product development and concept testing can be effectively created and brought to life via AR, providing a feel of the product in relationship to the environment. Furthermore, AR sets the stage for exploring multiple conditions easily. Rather than create several physical prototypes of a package, AR can program different stimuli for the participant to experience quickly. Imagine- shelf testing may not need to include shelves! The changes can range from small adjustments to entirely new designs. These conveniences streamline translating research findings into plans for improvement, while also saving time and energy dedicated to the framework set-up.

Some forms of AR research can also be done remotely, affording participants the opportunity to experience certain stimuli in intimate environments, such as their homes. The boundaries between the participant and location of use dissolves in this application. Being in a more natural space may encourage participants to provide feedback more comfortably. Furthermore, by overlapping real and virtual worlds, consumers can easily manipulate where the virtual product is placed. Having the environmental context fit the participant’s real lifestyle helps determine if a product or concept fits or disrupts established preferences. Pairing AR with other additional qualitative or quantitative research methods allows researchers to further evaluate behavior and reactions of various stimuli from a new perspective.   

Hearing out some Hesitations

Misuse of any technology can result in negative consequences. Reality is compromised to a degree when using AR, which can result in causing individuals to be less vigilant in acknowledging their surroundings. Additionally, augmented components may distract from reality. Alarms or car horns can easily be confused with augmented features, which could be detrimental for research and take away from the intended experience. Having a third party to supervise may be a helpful precaution; however, that is not always feasible. Informative concept forms and disclaimers should be utilized prior to the AR experience to remind users of the potential dangers. Like with anything, the overuse of AR in extreme cases can lead to disassociation of reality. Finding a healthy balance in understanding personal habits will make introducing AR into certain components of life a safe and easy transition. Considerations for usage should be considered when developing a screener for a research project including AR.

Since the implementation of AR on popular platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram, AR has become generally socially acceptable; however, it may have some critics concerned about privacy and data breaches. These concerns must also be addressed when recruiting participants.

Unfortunate technical drawbacks of AR also include requiring higher accuracy, wider input variety and longer ranges when compared to other virtual environments (Van Krevelen & Poelman, 2010). Depth perception is a challenge within the interface while developing the graphics. Consideration for programming and developing the correct type of immersion does not come cheap. The technical expertise of programing AR designs can be cost prohibitive, especially if it involves an intricate design. Determining the value AR may bring to a company is subjective based on the objectives in integrating this novel technology.

The response to implementing AR into different industries or the use of AR in market research can be analyzed with various psychological tools, such as an implicit association test or a self-assessment manikin (SAM). Advancements in AR research also suggests integrations of applied consumer science technology, such as eye tracking or heart rate. Using these tools can elevate research exploration as well as consumer responses to novel technology.

Concluding Thoughts

AR seeks to enhance the user experience by providing tools to make theoretical situations easier to comprehend. Whether used by researchers or consumers, AR gives stimulation testing a new medium. Learning consumer preference and behavior for companies to digest encourages future innovations. AR builds a personalized relationship with the user, ultimately increasing engagement.

The future of AR is budding, with new progressions making the technology more adoptable. For instance, hardware is evolving to make headsets more user-friendly. Other potential opportunity designs include merging AR and VR together to create a device capable of alternating between VR and AR. Product development, packaging testing, concept testing and other facets of the consumer experience can benefit from the integration of AR. Multiple iterations of a stimuli can be designed faster to improve existing prototypes, while combining AR with projective research gives consumers the opportunity to virtually create their ideal products for the R+D team to build upon. Interacting in the AR environment brings the user closer to the augmented object, whether it be a consumer product or experience. The growing trend of AR will continue to bring about creative content to interact with users and ultimately strengthen a relationship through convenient, exciting and valuable engagement.

To learn about innovative ways HCD can help you design strong research methodologies to connect with consumers, please contact Allison Gutkowski (


Caboni, F., & Hagberg, J. (2019). Augmented reality in retailing: a review of features, applications and value. International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management.

Chen, Y., Wang, Q., Chen, H., Song, X., Tang, H., & Tian, M. (2019, June). An overview of augmented reality technology. In Journal of Physics: Conference Series (Vol. 1237, No. 2, p. 022082). IOP Publishing.

Van Krevelen, D. W. F., & Poelman, R. (2010). A survey of augmented reality technologies, applications and limitations. International journal of virtual reality9(2), 1-20.

The Three R’s Pushing Consumers’ Eco-Friendly Carts

as seen in INsights mag

From plant-based burgers to paper straws, environmental initiatives are expanding to meet the demands of the conscious consumer. Indirect suggestions known as behavioral nudges emphasize positive characteristics, such as eco-friendliness, to impact the decision-making process. Yet, do consumers prioritize environmental incentives enough to break pre-existing routines? How can marketers encourage consumers to value eco-efficient products? Exploring the gap between what consumers say and do may provide some context into the intentionality behind the shopping experience and reveal if marketers are polluting or promoting a greener lifestyle.  

Behavioral economics utilizes theories from psychology and economics to focus on how consumers act when confronted with decisions under certain circumstances. In recognizing human idiosyncrasies, patterns in consumer behavior emerge as systematic, thus making it easier to understand what influences them. By applying nudging tactics, certain components of a product be can highlighted. Using the lens of positive environmental benefits to solidify a purchase, the value of nudging is explored.   

Reduce (Options)

Simple labeling nudges are used on packaging to streamline a decision. Association influence is seen in the “halo effect” where consumers assume additional unrelated characteristics about a product based on its overall impression. As a form of confirmation bias, the consumer interprets marketing components to affect perceptions and guide inferences about unknown information (Amos, Allred & Zhang, 2017). Assumptions are a fast way to holistically evaluate an item, even if the perceived interpretations are wrong. Furthermore, environmental packaging or labels (such as organic, fair trade and natural) promote superior associations. For example, biodegradable material is associated as a nontoxic, sustainable option, yet it can increase landfill methane gas production (Amos et al., 2017). Consumer perception drives incentive, regardless of a product’s reality. Human perception adapts quickly to comprehend the incredible amount of information it is interpreting at any given time. Mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, are employed to conserve energy. While heuristics allow consumers to respond quickly and streamline efficiency, it also results in biased decisions. Asking “Do I like brown eggs?” versus “Does eating cage-free eggs make me feel more ethically sound?” is a form of attribute substitution where consumers relate to different, simpler questions. Acknowledging mental strategies of categorization, marketers can intervene and entice consumers through subtle suggestion. 

Reuse (Positive Connotations)

Shopping is a habitual experience. Habit loops consisting of cues, routines and rewards are reinforced every time the action is repeated. By perpetuating a cycle that meets an expectation, the strength of a connection increases. Psychological tools, such as the implicit timed reaction test, analyze the strength of associations towards a product or stimulus. Companies may track the visceral perception of a brand, concept or product over time to evaluate strategic opportunities. Consumers are less likely to deviate from the norm to avoid switching costs but will evolve with the product if the perception of innovations is consumer-focused.

Green products are a specialty since alleged efforts are implemented to meet eco-efficient desires. Companies must pay to review the negative impact of energy and raw material consumption. While the expense of meeting label requirements ensures quality, some marketers take advantage of the eco-friendly associations by deceiving consumers into believing a product has environmental benefits through meaningless claims. The tactic known as “greenwashing” developed from marketers intentionally pushing suggestive eco-friendly labels as a means of tricking the consumer to attribute sustainable characteristics to a brand or product (Amos et al., 2017). Regardless of the label authenticity, green products have a high purchasing power by linking them to a subscribed concept of sustainability (Lopes & Veiga, 2019). Furthermore, personal benefits, such as saving money long-term as seen with solar panels, drive consumer engagement with prosocial action (Usrey, Palihawadana, Saridakis, & Theotokis, 2020). Social norms within messaging impact consumers behavior through context. Van Bavel et al. (2020) suggests phrases such as “the overwhelming majority of people in your community…” to persuade public response. Social proof can compel consumers to follow the majority, whether to work from home, shop online or use leftover fabric for facemasks.

Consumers justify high costs through the emotional association attached to the sustainability characteristics emphasized in the product’s presentation through the orientation of communication via packaging, ads and usage. However, the justification of a price may not equate to buying behaviors. Consumer attitudes may desire to live a greener lifestyle while still choosing the cheaper, conventional alternative. Green products compared to the conventional alternatives are associated with poorer performance. Usrey, Palihawadana, Saridakis and Theotokis (2020) suggest understated green credentials, while features such as performance are highlighted simultaneously, receive better evaluations and increase purchase intent. Determining what influences deter or attract consumers to a purchase allow the marketers to cater the product information to consistently better fit the demands of the consumer.

Recycle (Ways to Share Information)

Converting information about a product into digestible, memorable marketing is crucial to connect with consumers. Nudging accentuates features that portray certain options as superior to others. The decoy effect is one method that involves marketers intentionally displaying similar, less attractive product to increase satisfaction for a midground option. Slapø and Karevold (2019) used traffic-light symbols to explain the climate impact of each dish, which improved consumer eco-friendliness. Consumers chose the yellow option, suggesting the middle choice appears more attractive when compared to two extremes. When using three options, the decoy phenomenon is reinforced by the compromise effect, where restructuring the choice motivates consumers to commit to the perceived less risky selection, typically a middle option. The decoy effect is frequently applied to pricing structure and a certain characteristic, such as design or function. If a consumer is choosing among a generic, a hypoallergenic and a patterned band-aid, the most expensive option (with a cool design) steers the consumer to the second most expensive choice, the hypoallergenic one. Consumers are satisfied with the purchase since the asymmetry of the third patterned band aid reframed the decision, making the hypoallergenic band-aid more appealing.       

Framing is another technique which modifies information to adjust the product depiction. This technique changes consumer interpretation by highlighting a statement either positively (gained framing) or negatively (loss framing) (Tu, Kao, & Tu, 2013). For example, “Using LED lights reduces carbon emissions” provides a benefit or a gain, while “Unlike LED lights, noxious chemicals are found in florescent lights” stresses the negative of florescent lights. Choosing how to best frame energy conservation can motivate action. Perception of the value changes when differences between green and non-green products are noted since social influence, personal responsibility and environmental attitude impact consumers when evaluating items (Tu et al., 2013). Explaining how a behavior (such as buying LED) equates to certain outcomes is a persuasive messaging tactic since it mitigates risk. The decoy effect and framing nudge at elements of messaging to change perception, thus subtly effecting the consumer evaluation.

Consumer motives are influenced by knowledge and appeal. Marketing communications informs via messaging, packaging and actual product experience to strengthen consumer impressions. Adopting the eco-friendly narrative within products helps promote the acceptance of a brand and purchasing intent of a consumer with matching values. When consumers feel moral responsibility for product sustainability, it is easier to subscribe to the promotional strategies that encourage safe environmental behaviors. Through simple nudges, consumers are encouraged to expand beyond their habitual tendencies and explore new options of perceived benefits to live more environmentally conscious. As alternative means of production shift towards sustainability, it is the consumers’ buying patterns that ultimately motivate the companies to uphold greener standards. Shifting the standard of sustainability to an expectation rather than a luxury, the norm and nudges are reinforced with each point of purchase.


Amos, C., Allred, A., & Zhang, L. (2017). Do biodegradable labels lead to an eco-safety halo effect? Journal of Consumer Policy40(3), 279-298.

Lopes, E. L., & Veiga, R. T. (2019). Increasing purchasing intention of eco-efficient products: the role of the advertising communication strategy and the branding strategy. Journal of Brand Management26(5), 550-566.

Slapø, H. B., & Karevold, K. I. (2019). Simple Eco-Labels to Nudge Customers Toward the Most Environmentally Friendly Warm Dishes: An Empirical Study in a Cafeteria Setting. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 3: 40. doi: 10.3389/fsufs.

Tu, J. C., Kao, T. F., & Tu, Y. C. (2013). Influences of framing effect and green message on advertising effect. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal41(7), 1083-1098.

Usrey, B., Palihawadana, D., Saridakis, C., & Theotokis, A. (2020). How Downplaying Product Greenness Affects Performance Evaluations: Examining the Effects of Implicit and Explicit Green Signals in Advertising. Journal of Advertising, 1-16.

Van Bavel, J. J., Baicker, K., Boggio, P. S., Capraro, V., Cichocka, A., Cikara, M., … & Drury, J. (2020). Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. Nature Human Behaviour, 1-12.

Let’s Reflect: How to Explore Personal Bias

Perception is a fundamental factor in decision making. The lens in which we live our lives influences every choice, including the choice of inaction. Decisions are grounded in the concept known as implicit bias which are attitudes or stereotypes that impact a person’s perspective and actions (FitzGerald, Martin, Berner, & Hurst, 2019). Life experiences shape these implicit associations. Therefore, as a white young woman writing this blog, it is crucial to acknowledge my innate privilege in society which factors into how I conduct research, interact with others and view the world. The goal is not to become impartial, since mental constructs are not innately bad. However, by defining implicit bias, learning about its effects as well as ways to analyze it, there is an opportunity to be proactive in mindfulness and growth.

Seeing Life Through Rose-Colored Glasses

When directly asked a question about a certain topic, it is common for people to choose the perceived “best version” of themselves. It happens all the time with New Year’s resolutions. Drinking less, exercising every day, and getting eight hours of sleep are all really great in theory, but come February, old patterns sneak back into daily life. The same limitations of introspection occur when answering a questionnaire. It is easy for a survey respondent to reject a controversial topic like race, gender or religion by assuming biases align with expectations. The misconception is caused by assuming bias and bigotry are one in the same. Implicit biases do not equate to prejudice, since the participant’s internal bias may contradict conscious preferences.

Due to the unintentionality and unawareness of implicit biases, asking someone to articulate them is extremely challenging. Without realizing it, the brain categorizes groups known as schemas constantly. Bracketing objects, concepts or people allows our brain to infer and react to future situations more efficiently (Berkman, 2018). While that is a very normal human experience, misjudgment (both positive and negative) is common due to schemas. Unfortunately, the consequences of implicit bias slipups can be grave. Therefore, the way a person reacts and behaves as a result of the implicit bias is what raises concern. 

Assessing the Damage

So how can we address implicit bias? The first step involved in discussion of implicit associations is acknowledging that everyone has them, and therefore, each person’s bias has the potential to be explored. One common psychological measure used to assess implicit bias is the concept of implicit testing. The general theory behind implicit testing is if a concept and a word match a person’s perception, there is a high association which causes a faster response compared to a word that clashes with the concept (Morley, 2019). If a concept is about broccoli, a participant may have a high association for the word “healthy” compared to the word “sweet.” Implicit testing has multiple variations which approach uncovering biases in different ways. The type of implicit testing best to utilize is dependent on the research question being investigated.

Project Implicit is a great resource for explanations on implicit bias through services such as lectures, workshops and IAT tests specific to certain social topics including gender, disability, sexuality and others. When taking this test, participants sort pictures of European or African faces with positive or negative words into groups as quickly as possible (Project Implicit, 2011). (Take Project Implicit’s IAT here!) The IAT is paired with survey and demographic questions before results are provided. The results are clearly expressed and explained, describing how the IAT determines the results based on speed of response to certain stimuli. The description of the preference includes one of four options (slight, moderate, strong or no preference) which indicates the strength of the response (see Figure 1). For a person with no association or bias, the response should remain consistent regardless of the different variables presented (Morley, 2019).   

Figure 1: An example of an output from taking Project Implicit’s Race IAT (ProjectImplicit, 2011).

IAT is linked to neural and affective processes (Devine, Forscher, Austin, & Cox, 2012). Since brains are malleable and adjust to situations constantly, the results of an implicit test will also adjust accordingly. This means that the implicit race bias of the IAT is representative of a single moment; therefore, it does not have high test-retest reliability. However, the tool has been cited for giving insights when comparing levels of implicit prejudice or stereotyping with certain populations to analyze correlations in behavior differences (FitzGerald, Martin, Berner, & Hurst, 2019).

Being immersed in a society can either reinforce or change implicit associations over time. The recent tragic event concerning George Floyd reminds us black people continue to experience discrimination and adverse outcomes compared to their white counterparts (Devine, Forscher, Austin, & Cox, 2012). Strategies and interventions are widely researched to expose implicit biases and prevent them from impacting an individual’s interactions with others (FitzGerald, Martin, Berner, & Hurst, 2019). Research suggests counter-stereotype exposure and education interventions can decrease implicit bias, thus depleting negative stereotypes (Kang, 2012). Self-understanding also allows for cognitive improvement on the topic, with research suggesting equal decision making upheld when the influence of bias is brought to the forefront of attention (Casey, Warren, & Elek, 2012). Increasing awareness and concern is a crucial component in altering the implicit bias. Through such efforts, a conversation about the principles of equality will encourage all to work towards resolving the issues of discrimination.  

The Rundown of Implicit Applications

While implicit testing has helped shed light on implicit bias of stigmatized groups, the implicit testing can also evaluate attitudes of any type of concept- person, place, thing or idea. Biases are an innate factor in how humans’ function and can help build habits, advance our ability to learn and improve the way we live. HCD commissions implicit testing to measure consumer perceptions and bias to improve concepts, packaging and products. The validated research supporting implicit testing has proved to tackle a range of questions within market research, as well as in multiple sectors of social psychology, medicine and education. Using this tool helps us gain a deeper understanding of individuals’ personal biases, giving a window into subliminal values and beliefs. Implicit testing is one of the many ways we can work to better understand ourselves, as consumers and as people, to promote positive change.    

If you are interested in starting a conversation about implicit testing or the topics covered in this blog, please feel free to contact HCD Research via email at or call 908.788.9393.

HCD’s Commitment to Diversity

HCD celebrates diversity, equity and inclusion for its employees, customers, partners and participants of every race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, physical or mental disability, sexual orientation, marital status, military or veteran status, gender identity and expression, genetic information, or any other factor protected by law. Our commitment to equality allows us to build strong connections, develop innovative research and provide better service to all.

Marketplace Alienation: Avoiding Consumer Discontent

Heraclitus said it best when mentioning “change is the only constant in life.” To keep up with the ever-changing consumer, companies work hard to remain relevant by repositioning and reformulating products. Whether the change is due to advancements in technology or shifts in regulation, companies must evolve while consistently meeting consumer needs. However, these changes within a product or company include the risk of current consumers feeling left behind by the advances. With careful consideration and keeping consumers at the forefront of development strategies, companies can still make positive innovation while minimizing disappointment.

Consumer Opinions

Imagine returning to one of your favorite restaurants to learn your go-to meal was taken off the menu or replaced with a new version of the dish. While some customers may shrug it off, others may find it heartbreaking because that dish motivated them to make the reservation. The experience of feeling isolated or abandoned when a product (in this case the meal) changes is referred to as alienation. Alienation occurs when the expectation is underwhelmingly unmet and can lead to changes in buying behavior. Consumers often become promiscuous when dissatisfied, looking towards other options to better suit their needs, such as making a reservation at a competitor’s restaurant.

Products are not the only components of an experience that are able to alienate a consumer. Rebranding through communications or aesthetics can also lead a consumer to feeling disconnected. To avoid consumers reaching a place of marketplace alienation, it is important to find a balance of advancing without neglecting loyal consumers. How? By listening to the consumer through the idea of brand harmony. Brands consist of products, emotional, sensory and positioning experiences, as well as the visual identity. Creating a synergistic relationship promotes consumer relationships, understanding limitations, learning areas of potential growth and developing a unified company message (Petromilli & Morrison, 2002). The product or concept change still must meet expectations of the consumer experience to ensure satisfaction. By understanding the emotional reaction that target demographics have towards an item or a service will help companies build products to fit and flourish within consumer lifestyles.

Creatures of Habit

Daily activities are embedded with products, services and messaging. These components of life effect how consumers interact with products, including buying behavior. Habits have a major role in decision-making due to the formation of a habit loop of behavior consisting of cues, routines, and rewards (Eder & Dignath, 2019). Identifying the habit loop provides an opportunity to modify different parts of it, allowing product development to focus on consumer lifestyles. Using information gathered about consumers’ routines and acknowledging the existing footprint of the brand within the habit loop helps to create products that meets the needs of the consumer. The consumer-focus during the entire product cycle builds up the consumers reason to believe in a product. By ensuring the item or service fits the perception, the product experience as a whole can set the overall expectation.     

Risky Business

An estimated 80% of new products fail or underperform every year (Prahalad & Sawhney, 2011). A contributing factor to the huge turnover comes from not correctly identifying or contributing to an occasion. Considering the nature of the experience is crucial, since the context determines much of how a consumer will respond to it. For example, reformulating a cookie to have less sugar can seem like a great adjustment! It may even taste delicious, but is it what the consumer wants? If the value of the cookie is being a sweet treat, the new formula will be disappointing. Even if the cookie is an improvement by being better for the consumer’s health, the experience that the consumer anticipated is different. Furthermore, the innovation does not represent consumer expectation. To avoid alienating consumers, companies question if the change is noticeable and then explore how it is interpreted. Ultimately, the success of the change is decided by the positive or negative response of the consumer.

Changes within a company for any reason entails risk that current consumers will feel alienated and reject the new product. Some innovations may be an easy switch, while others are hard to adopt. The reformulation must consider the risk involved in making changes. Low risk changes are small pivots that are viewed as an extension of the overall product experience. Examples of low risk changes include Microsoft investing in gaming and Disney rolling out Disney+. When using implicit testing, the low risk prototypes are determined to have some harmony with the brand and concept but have a high certainty of response. With careful planning in messaging and communications, the change can be eased into the consumer routine and promote acceptance. 

Contrastingly, more extreme jumps have a higher risk of rejection because it’s a bigger stretch and may start a new narrative rather than stay consistent within the established brand identity. High risk products can be detected as prototypes with little to no harmony with the brand and/or concept and have low certainty during implicit testing. The disconnect between brand and product may confuse the consumer, potentially leaving them upset. Kendall Jenner’s infamous 2016 Pepsi commercial was not well-received by audiences due to its ignorant connotations of fixing systematic social issues with a can of soda. The backlash caused the commercial to get pulled, and Jenner had to make a public apology for her part in the ad. Brands work hard to build relationships with the consumer to enable loyalty. Altering perceptions of a product or person through bad messaging can feel like abandonment to consumers who identify with Pepsi or Jenner. Even if the product itself is wonderful on its own, the perceptions can overshadow the product experience. To mitigate risk, alienation market research can include learning the brand associations to help companies meet or surpass the accepted perceptions. 

Holistic Approach

No company goes out to change its product for the worse. The inevitable renovations and repositioning are built to improve, not challenge, consumers’ lives. Yet, the purpose of the product often misfires because of the disconnect between the product and the three types of consumers: potential, existing and lapsed. Reflecting on the consumer risks against benefits can help determine if the best strategy is being implemented to remain inclusive. Ignoring consumers only hurts the company by blindly attempting to rebrand or cut costs. The product, packaging, concept or communication is worthless unless someone validates it through use. By researching certain components of the overall product experience, companies can pinpoint places to cutback or lean into more to better position themselves in alignment with the consumer. Alienation testing engages with consumers to quantify the risk that may alter their purchase behaviors in response to the product changes.

Traditional research tools, focus groups or interviews, can provide the language consumers use. Starting with the consumers at the foundation keeps the innovations close to the users. The research design is dependent on what the company is trying to learn. By using the appropriate tool, the information can provide actionable results that can guide development. HCD employs a large amount of traditional and psycho-physiological tools to monitor interactions within the consumer experience. Using flexible and customizable research methods, companies can further explore how certain elements of the overall experience integrate into the consumers’ lifestyles. Evaluating the overlap of product experience with brand harmony bolsters success when introduced to the market by ensuring the product meets the promise. For more on HCD’s take on Marketplace Alienation, feel free to watch our latest webinar or episode of The HCD Vidcast at the links here.


Eder, A., & Dignath, D. (2019). Expected Value of Control and the Motivational Control of Habitual Action. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1812.

Petromilli, M., & Morrison, D. (2002). Creating brand harmony. Marketing Management, 11(4), 16-20.

Prahalad, D., & Sawhney, R. (2011). Predictable magic: unleash the power of design strategy to transform your business. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Pub.

“In these uncertain times”… the problem with current messaging

Empathy… the most competitive product of the COVID-19 era.  Advertisers are promoting messaging as a way to connect through phrases like “you are not alone,” “the new normal,” “we are with you,” “times of uncertainty,” “not knowing what the future holds,” blah, blah, blah. While one hopes these communication efforts are of good nature, it avoids a pressing consumer question: “What can you do for me?”

Every Covid-19 Commercial is Exactly the Same

In these uncertain times (apologies for reusing the phrase), comfort comes from facts and actions. And as you can see in this parody reel of current ads, a lot of the same messages are being conveyed across the board. No brand stands out since each ad is like the last, ultimately causing the messages to not appear sincere or meaningful.

I have often thought during the holiday season that advertisers are part of one long, redundant Santa Clause, reindeer, and/or smiling children-filled reel. The oversaturation of holiday ads likely lacks gaining the attention of consumers by making them numb to messaging. Advertisers are selling Christmas “cheer,” hoping the holiday halo will extend to their brand.  However, consumers do not buy cheer; they buy presents. I often wondered how strongly cheer compels consumers to by a product from an advertiser.

I assume research exists regarding whether “cheer” sells.  I am sure that some dissertation in marketing or psychology has addressed it.  Speaking as a consumer, with a clutter of empathetic spots running 24 hours a day, who is the beneficiary?

The consumer isn’t. These ads lack information suggesting how the purchase will improve our current predicament caused by COVID-19.  Where can I find this, buy that, solve my boredom, protect my body? These important questions and concepts are not advertised.  Only platitudes of “we care for you” type sentiments are promoted in hopes that consumers will remember it the next time someone is looking to get a beer, realtor, cell phone or operating system.

Not the advertisers. Since all the ads are selling empathy, advertisers are in the non-differentiated commodity business.

Media wins!  They are racking up revenues as the businesses paying their fares hemorrhage.

Some time ago HCD Research conducted a study to measure the impact of the phrase “new and improved” highlighted in bright yellow and visible in a grocery store aisle. We found consumers have learned to not even look at imagery or messaging resembling “new and improved.” Furthermore, consumers avoid the top right corner of the packaging in general. Without including relevant information that’s meaningful to the product, consumers learn to ignore. The conclusion is packaging may actually be better off highlighting a claim like “worse than before” to get the consumer’s attention. 

A cliché is a cliché. During this time of COVID, a new set of redundant images, words and phrases are racking up big bucks for media (with minimal production cost since it’s all stock images and little to no creativity or testing). The impact is just as minimal as a Christmas Eve ad with Santa taking a bite of a cookie before leaving for the next house.

“In these uncertain times,” let’s take the opportunity to do better and be more thoughtful about our communications. Make sure you are engaging your consumer in a meaningful way and linking the messaging to your brand.

Perhaps now, more than ever, it’s important to consider your consumer. Do the research. Make sure you understand your consumer and that you are truly helping them in these difficult times.

For more information on how HCD can help you uncover valuable insights into your brand, product, and/or messaging, please reach out to Allison Gutkowski (

Lean into Friction: Qualities of Quarantine

The entire world has felt the jolt from the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19. Routines of daily life are disrupted, making even the most basic constructs change. Gathering is limited, children are home from school (and “pandemic-learning”), communication is distant, travel is scarce and even ways to get physical activity has become remote. While changes are difficult, people are quickly learning to acclimate. Rather than stopping during the initial shock, the world reassessed how to adjust to new limitations. Acknowledging new priorities and finding solutions on how to integrate them into life is crucial for enduring such a trying situation. Coping strategies acquired during this extraordinary time can promote growth that may extend far beyond the shelter-in-place timeline.

One of the many hurdles to overcome is giving up customs that often guide our lives, such as morning gym workouts, weekly date nights (or parent night out), or weekly happy hours at the local bar. Habits are formed through the repetition of behavior, eventually becoming something so ingrained it feels automatic and often emotionally comforting. A trigger is what sparks a behavioral-emotional habit loop of cues, routines and rewards which guides our lifestyles. People follow behavioral patterns in hopes of receiving the same desired outcome of a previous experience. Context is a key component to initiating a habit, which explains why people don’t call the dentist to schedule a haircut. The clients know from experience that dentists don’t cut hair. Memories, including the scissors on the hairdresser’s logo or a goodie-bag including floss at the dentist’s office, enforce expectations. Small changes to environmental cues, such as a long wait-time at the salon, are processed by our brain’s neural pathways to respond appropriately and store the new information if the same circumstance should happen in the future (Berkman, 2018). But what happens when the routine is completely flipped upside-down and inside-out? It can be an opportunity to hit the reset button and make real personal changes to our lifestyles.  

Just wipe the slate clean?

To explore human behavior effectively, concepts from behavioral economics help break down the process of choice. Analyzing the instinctive and unconscious (System 1) or rational and deliberate (System 2) modes of thinking will help to explain the way individuals respond to hardship (Kahneman, 2011). The extreme results of the COVID-19 outbreak resulted in a complete environmental change from the norm. The immediate response of fear is represented by the newfound value in toilet paper or hand sanitizer. Emotionally buying is a System 1 response to the uncertainty of a difficult situation. Yet, before worrying about the chaos caused by a lack of structure, it helps to remember two things: control and freedom. This is an opportunity to reflect on the habits embedded in our routine and decide if a particular routine helps or hurts. Instead of grabbing Starbucks while heading to the office, we now can decide if the morning caffeine intake from Starbucks is necessary or if brewing a cup at home will do the trick. Furthermore, the freedom of choice allows the individual to decide what routines should continue and which ones to leave behind.

@costcobuys on instagram

The disruption of behavior brings an explicit awareness of the effort needed for tasks often done automatically. With the need to stay home, virtual classes and online meetings have quickly been adopted by institutions and companies. Is traveling for meeting really optimal? Using a virtual format while capturing the essence of a physical event helps save time, money and travel while still maintaining the objective for connecting. Additionally, dismantling geographical barriers can promote brainstorming and innovation. Some families are having virtual parties with grandparents or chatting with classmates via FaceTime on cell phones. Platforms such as Zoom allow for face-to-face communications, while larger-scale events, such as social media concerts, are now available on Instagram Live where millions of users can listen to an artist in real-time. These adjustments to family dynamics, entertainment, business and educational discussions may have lasting effects and change the fundamental way people interact.     

While every challenging situation is unique, parallels can be drawn from past scenarios to show how periods of disruption can make lasting impacts. For example, Larcom, Rauch and Willems (2017) review how the London underground network strike forced commuters to change their morning routine to work. Since the underground rail network was not an option, commuters were forced to use other forms of public transportation- call a taxi, walk, bike or work remotely- until the strike ended. Exploring alternative methods motivated 5% of the commuters to permanently switch to more optimal travel options even when the strike ended (Larcom, Rauch, & Willems, 2017). Disruption, even if it seems inconvenient in the short term, may ultimately increase efficiency.

Let’s Reframe the Game Plan—More Social, More Distance

The World Health Organization (WHO), the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and local government officials are stressing the importance of staying home and minimizing contact. The message of distancing is important to emphasize how separation can save lives. However, individuals are being creative in finding socialization and avoiding isolation. Numerous community pages have started to share tips, ideas and strategies to overcome challenges. Colleges are offering virtual career fairs to students entering the workforce in May, while parents are swapping tips on ways to keep children entertained. Additionally, a new wave of “virtual volunteerism” is growing, where digital ‘Adopt a Grandparent’ programs for residents in nursing homes allow them to engage with other members of the community. Viral dances and memes about #quarantinelife and Netflix’s Tiger King are motivated by people seeking connection. Coalitions are developing from the need to network and improve, from business partnerships to various government agencies. Focusing on ways to realistically moderate challenges like COVID-19 will give insight into ways to adapt for future obstacles. Harnessing the motivation to collaborate, network and brainstorm ideas during times of hardship will promote growth and lay the groundwork for progression.  

“Viral dances and memes about #quarantinelife and Netflix’s Tiger King are motivated by people seeking connection.”

Lead the Change

In times of uncertainty, individuals look to others (meaning experts, families and companies) as guides for behavior. The comfort from finding strength in numbers is known in psychology as social proof or informational social cue (Talib & Saat, 2017). Marketers use this theory frequently to help convince consumers to purchase a product or service. Netflix famously has an algorithm for the “match percentage,” but this has virtually no meaning to users other than to address the paradox of choice. The additional information of a “95% match,” even if it has no meaning, helps justify decisions because it provides an excuse. Furthermore, social community recommendations, celebrity suggestions and numbers of likes can also sway public opinion and influence action. Individuals will look to the power of the public opinion for guidance as this period is a time of reset. Understanding how disrupting our normal routine has a bigger purpose can be a source of motivation during this challenging time. The circumstances force people to think outside the box about ways to connect, challenge and better themselves (or at least squeeze in some time to laugh at memes).


Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan.

Larcom, S., Rauch, F., & Willems, T. (2017). The benefits of forced experimentation: striking evidence from the London underground network. The Quarterly Journal of Economics132(4), 2019-2055.

Talib, Y. Y. A., & Saat, R. M. (2017). Social proof in social media shopping: An experimental design research. In SHS Web of Conferences (Vol. 34, p. 02005). EDP Sciences.

Adjusting to New Norms: Consumers and Market Research Now

From family members to research houses to end clients, the entire world has been impacted by the pandemic and working to understand how to adjust and progress forward. The phrase “new normal” has latched onto numerous conversations since the start of COVID-19. Change has inevitably caused a shift in priorities and expectations, leaving companies questioning how to get to the next phase. Relative importance from the start of 2020 to now, it is easy to pick out aspects of life which are being prioritized. Haircuts are put on hold, while Wi-Fi connections are of the upmost importance. By reviewing trends in consumer perceptions regularly, assessing what ideals remain consistent, valued or abandoned is possible. During this unprecedented time with lots of uncertainty, research solutions can provide stable consumer information to help build strong strategies for finding a way forward to meet future needs and habits.  

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Amidst the overwhelming chaos of the COVID-19 news and the new situations we find ourselves in, it may be comforting to know that fundamental challenges can be met with creative solutions. Social distancing inspired virtual cocktail hours, online classes and videogame hangouts. Individuals change their behaviors because it is the only option and can make an impact on a large scale. Items of critical needs, like protective face shields for medical personnel, are being crafted by 3D printers. Scarcity in equipment, products or services encourages consumers to think outside the box and explore alternative options.

Food is one of the most basic necessities. To address the concerns regarding public places and widespread shortages, consumers are turning to grocery delivery, curbside pickups and online shopping. Each of these methods for food shopping is unique, from the amount of interaction with the store itself to the amount of information. The experience of shopping in a physical store compared to online is very different. Rather than browsing aisles and seeing attractive packages, consumers are scrolling through browsers or apps on their phone seeing vastly different information and imagery. The format of a website or app highlights different features of the product as opposed to being in-person and on a shelf. These differences in format (in-store vs online) will elicit different consumer perceptions and ultimately influence purchase behaviors. For example, in-store package design and shelf location may drive purchase behaviors, while online emphasis on pricing per ounce may be more influential.

Figure 1: An example of in-store (left) vs online shopping (right) via an app.

The process of online grocery shopping may involve a bit of a learning curve for people who typically shop in-store. However, companies are working hard to ensure apps are simple to entice consumers to continue shopping without having to leave their couch. And these new learned behaviors (and future habits) may even be able to translate into becoming a part of the consumers’ behavior when they return to stores, such as incorporating apps in planning their shopping lists.

The Norm is Dead; Long Live the Norm

When one king passes away, the order of succession is enacted, and the next king is crowned to replace him. Similarly, if a past norm is no longer relevant, another norm (or a stronger metric) will follow in its place. Yet, norms may not provide the most accurate factors for assessing current environments, especially if drastic changes are occurring.

HCD has used norms in the past, as this is the client expectation in media and communications research. However, we have often seen and pointed out problems we have seen in using norms to make business decisions. For example, following the great recession experienced in 2008, HCD collected data via survey ranking Super Bowl ads based on performance against normative scores. Criteria for the normative scores was based on historical data defining what score an ad would need to meet to be successful. Due to our concerns around a set historical normative score, we relied on floating norms, reassessing the score needed to be successful for each year. What you can see in the graph below is that this score decreased each year following the recession. Meaning a successful ad in 2010 would not have been considered successful in 2008. This should be a red flag for anyone that relies on historical norms to make their business decisions. Further, you can see that the top 5 ads in the years following the recession would not have been successful. This clearly demonstrates the dangers of relying on historical norms for making business decisions.

Figure 2: (Top) Demonstrates the normative scores for the 2008, 2009 and 2010 Super Bowl advertisements. (Bottom) Breaks down and ranks the scores for the top 5 performing Super Bowl ads for the years 2008, 2009 and 2010.  

Extraordinary times reveal the importance of being flexible to new perspectives. The pandemic is an opportunity to try a new approach that may yield better solutions. Keep a fresh perspective and an open mind. Long live the king, but maybe it’s time to put the queen in charge.

Correctly Capturing the Current (and Continuing) Changes

Adjusting to COVID-19 social distancing and stay-at-home mandates requires our behavior to change and for people to learn new ways to shop. Brand loyalty is also disrupted due to scarcity of products allowing for alternative brands and products to be showcased. If toilet paper availability is low, consumers have the option to use wipes or tissues. Additionally, the way companies react to the pandemic may also influence a consumer’s allegiance to a brand. Consumers may be more enticed to support a company donating supplies compared to a company laying off numerous employees. Seeing how a company responds during a crisis may attract or deter a consumer, especially because the circumstances are very emotional. Understanding the consumer mentality helps companies develop messaging, concepts or products that satisfy essential concerns and make better predictions of market success. Habits are a cycle of cues, routines and rewards shaping our behaviors and lifestyles. When the habit cycle is disrupted by a crisis, it presents an opportunity for brands and products to make new impressions that supersede the previous expectation. The massive routine changes occurring right now are forcing consumers to explore new options. To meet the consumers’ ideal need, habit, and lifestyle, it is crucial to understand how the current environment is shifting feelings, values and priorities.  

Figure 3: An example of a Brand Tracking wave to understand the process of HCD’s MaxImplicit when applied to Brand Tracking.   

Reviewing how disruptions change perceptions or habits over time is useful for companies to understand when trying to connect with consumers. One way for companies to monitor behavioral trends involves the concept of brand tracking. It calls for systematic evaluations of the performance of particular stimuli. The item or concept tracked can range from studying the company, an existing product, an ad campaign or the launch of an entirely new product. Anthropologically gathering information around the language surrounding certain brands or products can give a strong foundation for being closer to consumers to understand unmet or satisfied needs. HCD’s MaxImplicit analyzes the associations of consumer needs to evaluate the health of a company against competitors and determine areas of potential innovation. Learning the way consumers react to hardship can help companies position themselves to better align with the consumers’ interests. Remaining malleable during a time of change enables a company to better accommodate consumers by discovering and satisfying new ideals. Revisiting the stimuli frequently can give insight into whether product expectation waivers temporarily or permanently, helping to determine how to structure campaigns, products and communications.

Brand tracking is also useful in evaluating the recovery period. As life settles back into a routine, some habits developed during the period of disruption will remain while some original behaviors will return. Physical environments may trigger habits connected to certain places, such as hitting the gym after work. Yet, life will not be the same because everyone has been impacted by the extreme influence of COVID-19. The skills gained during the pandemic may overpower original habits because it allows for a more optimal experience. Virtual movie nights with extended family or grocery shopping with an app may integrate into the lifestyle developed by past experiences, including COVID-19.

Many companies are leveraging COVID-19 behavior into a use case to move with consumers into the new normal. Messaging changes how companies connect with consumers. State Farm’s New Normal commercial is an ode to consumers for adjusting to an ever-changing world with State Farm remaining reliable. Other companies are reframing messaging to address new values, like cleaning. WeatherTech, an automotive protection product company, released a campaign to addresses the importance of disinfecting products. The ad highlights how surfaces are easy to wipe and machine washable. Acknowledging the priorities of the current and future environment, research houses and end-clients promote growth via communications, design and concepts to extend far beyond the shelter-in-place timeline.

Video: WeatherTech COVID-19: Disinfectants Ad Commercial aired in 2020.

Companies and consumers are products of past experiences; however, as situations unfold, we are dependent on our growth from the past to improve. While individuals are given the opportunity to shift their habit loop during disruptive moments, it also empowers them to either dissociate or integrate brands or companies into the new patterns. Listening to consumer concerns and catering the product experience to the new priorities promotes a stronger and valued connection. Remaining prevalent through outreach and market tracking acknowledges the flux in interest during unprecedented times. By delivering on the identified needs, brands match consumer ideals. Using this time to connect, reflect and strategize will ultimately promote stronger products and messaging that acknowledge the experiences of consumers.