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Applying Behavioral Science to UX Research: How Neuro-Tools Diagnosed Vaccine Scheduling UX

The purpose of usability (UX) research is to help designers and developers deliver great user experiences in a very simple and accessible way. UX is simply the idea that a normal person should be able to use products without finding the process frustrating or annoying. But it can be difficult to unobtrusively measure these experiences. Traditional tools for UX include surveys and interviews (asked after the experience about the experience), eye tracking and behavioral recording analytics (tracking behaviors with the product), expert review (where an expert navigates the product and reports any issues), and speak-aloud qualitative research (hearing user experiences reported as they navigate a product). Most of these tools rely on either user recall of the experience or interrupting the experience in some way, and they lack a way of assessing experiences that are more difficult to self-report, such as emotions and cognitive effort.

A behavioral science approach to UX design can help increase calls to action by making the process simple, easy, and pleasing. And a great place to test this out was with vaccine scheduling websites.

Public health officials continue to stress the importance of vaccination as a way to curb the spread of Covid-19. Getting individuals to sign up for a vaccine appointment is a fundamental step in administering more shots. One major step in signing up for the vaccine is scheduling an appointment online. And in the early days of vaccine availability, this was a challenging task due to a combination of poor UX design and limited vaccines. Designing an intuitive website can actually encourage calls to action and help people who are actively seeking out the Covid-19 vaccine but are struggling to use the interface.

To better understand the pain points within the process of signing up for the Covid-19 vaccine, HCD Research partnered with IVP Research Labs to run a NeuroUX study using neuroscientific tools to get in-the-moment responses to two common vaccine sites, CVS Pharmacy (CVS) and Rite Aid. The use of an electroencephalography (EEG) recorded cognitive and emotional reactions in real time. Eye tracking (ET) was also incorporated to understand what the participant focused on during the event, helping to pinpoint and evaluate specific moments of the entire user experience. Pairing behavioral data, such as overall task completion time, with the tools available through NeuroUX shares the larger story of the complications within vaccine scheduling.

Let’s take a look at how website navigation varied between the two sites.

Getting behind the problem

As a rule, people don’t like to puzzle over how to do things. If a website doesn’t seem to care enough to make things obvious, it can erode confidence in the site and its products. The two Covid-19 scheduling sites have very different approaches towards navigating the site. Rite Aid’s landing page provides an easy-to-find banner ad encouraging individuals to “Stay Updated on Covid-19,” with an emphasis on scheduling the vaccine appointment by explicitly stating “Schedule Vaccine Appointment,” while highlighting the link in a different color. CVS’s page is much more text-heavy and lacks a clear direction to set up an appointment. It is unclear where to click, since the landing page is stressing CVS’s #OneStepCloser hashtag, rather than guiding the individual to schedule their first or second doses.

The confusion created on the landing page is reflected in the cognitive and emotional responses of the participant. Being on the CVS landing page showed a greater workload in comparison to Rite Aid, which is indicative of more mental effort required to broach the task. The Frontal Asymmetry Index, or the emotional index, on the landing page was very similar, with CVS having a slightly higher emotional index. The greater the emotional index, the more of a negative affect occurs. For both sites, the participant was orienting to the page and held similar levels of motivation to complete the task at hand. Therefore, it suggests the participant remained consistent in the beginning of the process between the two sites in terms of drive to completion.

To qualify or not to qualify- that is the question

Following the first impression, there were other times early on causing emotional activations. CVS includes a pre-check questionnaire about Covid-19 symptoms that also resulted in an increased negative affect emotional activation. In addition, extra pages are included defining the differences between receiving one-dose or two-dose vaccinations, asking the individual to specify the type of vaccine they are scheduling, etc. While these questions and additional information are concise, reflecting on if they or someone they know tested positive or had symptoms proved to be unpleasant, these extra steps extend the process, offering additional opportunities for individuals to drop off or give up.  

One major differentiator between the two sites was when the participant learned that there were no CVS appointments available in New Jersey. This frustration was reflected in the emotional index, with a major negative affect spike. Additionally, the pop-up provides a lot of information and is not clear as to where to click, which could also be impacting the workload index. The participant experienced a higher workload with a negative response, implying there is a struggle determining eligibility on the CVS site.

On the other site, Rite Aid shares information by including a PDF to guide participants about what “eligibility” means and includes a survey with straightforward questions, ultimately sharing if the participant qualifies. The PDF is very dense and full of facts, resulting in stress of excess information (causing a spike in negative affect). This overall streamlined approach makes it easier for the participant to make a decision about how to navigate the site. However, both CVS and Rite Aid would benefit by simplifying text-heavy sections, such as the PDF and the pop-up, to avoid the negative affect caused by information overload.

Do the users have “a shot” at a home run? 

When the participant finally reached the stage where they could set up an appointment, the cognitive responses exposed interesting insights. While the amount of cognitive demand remained similar (as seen through the workload index), the emotional activation differed. CVS has a drop in frontal asymmetry, implying a decline in negative affect. This response may be caused by the sense of relief in finally surpassing the various hurdles experienced throughout the overall sign-up process. Although Rite Aid did have a greater negative affect compared to CVS, when comparing the emotional activation to the overall Rite Aid experience, it stayed consistent.  Unlike the ups and downs experienced with CVS, the emotional reaction seen with the Rite Aid experience suggests the interactions caused a similar overall temperament.


While both websites include potential areas of improvement, scheduling a vaccine appointment through Rite Aid presented an overall easier experience for the user. The lower workload during the landing page and steps to determine eligibility suggests the site is cognitively easier to navigate. It also seems more intuitive with a streamlined approach to setting up an appointment. Additionally, incorporating small rewards, such as the “Great news!” prompt encourages the individual to finish out the process and feel motivated to select a pharmacy.

The CVS scheduling experience was a longer, more arduous experience (with the overall time to completion being 4.7 minutes longer than Rite Aid). The instructions are unclear and include a lot of material which may contribute to confusion or uncertainty about using the interface. The differences between the cognitive and emotional responses expose where there is a lack of clarity on where to click. Incongruent interactions, such as scrolling back and forth to find no appointments are available, can spoil an experience. Giving visual cues to better indicate unavailable appointments, such as graying out the state, can clearly and quickly communicate the message of limited options in that state. Building trust during this experience is really important, given hesitation surrounding Covid-19 vaccines. By condensing the number of pages necessary to complete the task and creating a clear path through the site’s journey, CVS has the ability to create a better bond with the individual and provide a more satisfying experience.  

Although there are nuances to each site’s user experience, both would benefit from clearer calls to action. By recording brain activity during the task through a noninvasive approach such as EEG, the usability of both websites can be accurately assessed, and particular areas of improvement can be detected. Peaks in workload and emotional activation reveal areas of potential issues. NeuroUX serves as an additional indicator of cognitive workload and emotional activation, helping differentiate the two experiences and discovering in-the-moment responses that may be challenging for participants to recall or verbalize. The results analyzed can help vaccine clinics, website designers, and/or public health officials improve usability to avoid individuals from being discouraged from signing-up not only for the Covid-19 vaccine but also for seasonal flu shots. Making an effective and streamlined process can potentially help encourage all types of individuals, not just the tech-savvy, to take the appropriate steps for their health wants and needs. Addressing areas of confusion to improve the usability of the website has the potential to build trust and confidence in the larger picture of the vaccine, booster, or flu shot. Keeping to a simple and straightforward approach can reduce confusion, hesitation, and dropouts, ultimately creating a positive change for both the individual, the company, and the public health effort at large.

NeuroUX provides an opportunity to fully optimize any calls to action. From purchasing to subscriptions to just trying to give the consumer a little more information, every interface has the potential to improve with the insights gleaned from NeuroUX.  If you are interested in learning more about the benefits of NeuroUX research, please reach out to Allison Gutkowski at

Getting in the Know: NeuroU 2021 Virtual Series

Whether you are interested in applied consumer neuroscience, never heard of such a thing, or are an expert in the field, there is always something new to learn and explore. NeuroU was born out of the realization that both industry and academia share the same questions and curiosity about the science, tools, and techniques used (and often abused) in applied consumer neuroscience.

HCD Research hosts this annual symposium to initiate an interdisciplinary and open discussion on how applied consumer neuroscience is evolving, to learn about the innovations in the field, and to discuss ways to do better research, including the related fields of traditional market research, behavioral sciences, sensory & consumer science, and communications research. As researchers, we are very aware that the learning is a continuous process.

NeuroU 2021 offered access to all of HCD Research’s content, from last year’s NeuroU introductory sessions as well as a vast collection of content, from white papers on Applied Neuroscience methods to webinars and vidcasts focusing on special topics, demos and infographics to help attendees learn a little more about everything applied neuroscience, and interactive and networking opportunities.

In the spirit of our ultimate goals of sharing knowledge and education, we wanted to put all of this content in one place for anyone seeking more information on applied neuroscience, this event, or HCD Research.

Let’s start with doing a little “blast from the past” to NeuroU 2020. Below are the links to each day’s recordings: 

  • NeuroU Day 1 (best day for beginners – check out our intro to applied neuroscience and methods sessions for a more general overview of the area)
  • NeuroU Day 2 (diving deep into technologies with leaders in the field)
  • NeuroU Day 3 (exploring sensory and consumer product applications)
  • NeuroU Day 4 (discussing marketing and communications applications)
  • NeuroU Day 5 (guest lectures on consumer research)
  • NeuroU Day 6 (guest lectures on problem solving and review of educational tools and tracks)

In addition to the session recordings above, which range from general overviews to more in-depth case studies, we have tons of educational content that anyone can view for free. Take a look at the links listed below and be sure to visit our YouTube page and other social media to keep up to date on everything we put out there!

  • HCD Research White Papers: Learn about complex issues in a simplified format with HCD Research’s White Papers. These short reports act as guides to help better understand intricate concepts or measurements quickly (with useful academic and scientific references for future learning).
  • HCD Research Tech Demos: Watch hands-on, simplified demos of some of our neuro and psychological tools here!
  • The HCD Research Mindset Vidcasts: Check out HCD Research’s Mindset Vidcasts, where Michelle Niedziela, PhD, VP of Research & Innovation, & Kathryn Ambroze, Manager of Behavioral & Marketing Sciences, chat with industry leaders, internal experts, and each other about big topics in human behavior. These sessions deep dive into the limitations and pitfalls of emerging trends and topics within the field to help you identify what innovation has a lot of untapped value or is too good to be true. The best part? We have season 1, season 2, and season 3 (coming soon) ready to share.
  • HCD Research Webinars: Join the HCD team and various other experts as we tackle topics such as AI, behavioral science, claims, norms, wellness and more! These webinars focus on specific topics to discuss, dissect, and think about how applied neuroscience tools may be applied in these areas.
  • HCD Research Blogs: Gain in-depth insight from the HCD team on trends, research, and case studies within the world of applied consumer neuroscience here.
  • HCD Research Infographics: If you are looking for a quick overview of a topic, check out these infographics for some bite-sized learnings!
  • HCD Research Bibliography: Team HCD works hard to create quality content, which includes numerous publications. To receive the full list of the most up-to-date bibliography, please reach out to Allison at

NeuroU is intended to be an opportunity for individuals interested in applied consumer neuroscience to connect, network, and learn from each other. Join our NeuroU by HCD Research LinkedIn page to share thoughts or continue the conversations inspired by the symposium, as well as keep in the know for updates on future events. We also invite you to reach out to HCD Research if you have any further questions, concerns, or comments.

Covid-19 Vaccine Brand Perceptions

An HCD Case Study

Although we are well into a year of having Covid-19 being a major component of our lives, many individuals are still sick and dying every day from this virus. A reported 4.38 million deaths have resulted from this pandemic, and with little to no understanding about the long-term effects of Covid-19 for those who survive, the ramification of this virus continues to unfold. Yet, over the past seventeen months, researchers and scientists have gained a good grasp about useful mitigation strategies that reduce the spread of infection. Along with the promising influences of universal masking, encouraged outdoor activities, and curfews, vaccinations have proven to be an effective tool for keeping people out of the hospital and dying (CDC, 2021).

The rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine ignited mixed opinions: some feeling relieved and optimistic, while contrasting views were skepticism and fear. HCD Research partnered with Farrah Kharche from the University of Pennsylvania Master’s in Behavioral and Decision Science program to explore consumer-driven brand perceptions of vaccine providers in the United States. Identifying and analyzing these perceptions is a valuable component in translating consumer belief into a desired behavior, such as vaccine adoption.

Location, location, location!

Since this study focuses on consumers in the US, perceptions were measured on the three currently available vaccine providers: Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were developed with a novel mRNA technique that requires two doses, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single-dose, traditional viral vector vaccine (Person, 2021). These perceptions were collected in July 2021 to ascertain if consumers associate specific emotional and brand attributes with the three vaccine providers.

Among the 250 survey participants (ages 18-64), 64% reported being vaccinated. Unsurprisingly, the majority of participants reported they either did receive or would be comfortable getting a vaccine in spaces such as a doctor’s office or a pharmacy (76% and 70%), while only half received or felt comfortable receiving a vaccine in a grocery store. Vaccination sites that were less popular included hospitals (47%) and mass vaccination sites (8%). The minority of individuals willing to receive a dose at a mass vaccination site is concerning, as this method is an efficient way to distribute the vaccine. Considering the environment in which individuals would be willing to receive a vaccine shot is really important while making plans for future rollouts. It is clear based on these responses that context plays a major role in encouraging certain behaviors.

The Methodology

To explore if perceptual differences exist, both explicit and implicit responses were collected from participants through open-ended responses and an implicit reaction test (IRT). An IRT is a timed reaction test which reveals, in this case, if consumers associated the vaccine provider with the attribute displayed. If the vaccine provider and the descriptor were a match, the participant was instructed to press the spacebar as fast as possible. The faster response is indicative of a stronger association. Further, investigating the IRT responses along with the documented free-form responses describing the vaccine providers offers an interesting overview about how consumers feel about the Covid-19 vaccine brands.

Giving the vaccine a shot

The word clouds below of the three vaccine providers reveal the pertinent descriptors used for each brand. Figure 1 shares the explicit attitudes of participants. Interestingly, each vaccine provider often was referred to as “safe.” Moderna and Pfizer were both often noted as “effective,” while Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer were considered “reliable.” Johnson & Johnson was also referred to as “trusted.”

Figure 1: Above are the world clouds for the three vaccine brands: Johnson & Johnson (green), Pfizer (blue), and Moderna (red).

The IRT consisted of brand and emotional descriptors, giving insight into how consumers feel about different vaccine providers as well understanding what features of the brand translate to consumer perception. For the brand IRT, both Moderna and Pfizer had significantly higher associations with the word “available” than Johnson & Johnson, with more than 65% of the participants. Both vaccine providers also demonstrated high and medium associations significantly higher than Johnson & Johnson with words such as “healthy,” “safe,” “reliable,” and “effective.”

Figure 2: Implicit emotional association responses, categorized into high, medium, and low based on the timed reaction to exposure to the descriptor. 

It does not appear the viral vector vaccine utilized by Moderna or Pfizer created notable qualms among the words tested, since the brand words with high and medium associations are positive concepts. Contrastingly, Johnson & Johnson is not satisfying any of the brand attributes tested and could benefit by building a stronger narrative around the one-dose vaccine. Interestingly, the implicit responses about Johnson & Johnson differ from the explicit descriptors, where participants frequently noted the brand as reliable and trusted. This suggests that although participants deliberately find Johnson & Johnson trusted and reliable, there is an unspoken disconnect and hesitation which needs to be addressed and highlighted in the company’s messaging and outreach.

As for the implicit emotional associations, more than 65% of participants highly associated both Moderna and Pfizer with being “normal” and “safe,” significantly more than Johnson & Johnson. Additionally, Moderna and Pfizer also shared a medium association with participants feeling “confident” and “social.” The two vaccine providers overall had very positive connotations associated with them, with negative emotional words, such as “scared” or “hesitant,” not matching. Johnson & Johnson lacked any high associations; however, participants had higher associations for negative words such as “disappointed” and “scared” compared to both Pfizer and Moderna. The consensus among the implicit emotional associations is that Moderna and Pfizer have a more complementary view compared to Johnson & Johnson.

Figure 3: Implicit brand association responses, categorized into high, medium, and low based on the timed reaction to exposure to the descriptor. 

Vax lax or vax to the max: Does it make a difference?

This study showed perceptions vary among vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. Unvaccinated individuals highly associated the vaccine brands with the negative attributes and had low to no associations toward positive attributes when thinking about vaccine brands. For example, Johnson & Johnson was highly associated with negative words, such as “disappointed,” “hesitant,” and “scared” among unvaccinated participants. The inverse is true for vaccinated individuals, who had low associations with the same three negative descriptors.  

Figure 4: Implicit reaction time results with participants segmented as either vaccinated (i.e., has at least received their first dose) and unvaccinated. 

The unfavorable perceptions among unvaccinated participants may be affiliated with overall associations about vaccines, causing some individuals to be reluctant out of fear. Many choosing to remain unvaccinated have noted concerns ranging from allergic reactions to belief in vaccine conspiracies (Su et al., 2020). Tailoring communication strategies to specific types of unvaccinated individuals may provide a meaningful shift in perspective. Those with medical concerns or hesitations will have a different understanding of the vaccines compared to someone who is uninformed about the topic. Delivering clear, evidence-based information to dispel false notions around vaccines is critical in helping consumers make informed decisions towards Covid-19 vaccine adoption.    


Even though the vaccines are proven as a safe, effective, and accessible tool to mitigate risk in the US, consumer perception surrounding the vaccine brands among unvaccinated participants suggests otherwise. Individuals within the unvaccinated population have a lack of trust, which results in a dampening in vaccine acceptance and compliance with health guidelines. Shifts in perception is one of the most valuable ways to enhance vaccine uptake. Each vaccine provider must carefully craft messages and campaigns which target specific individuals for effective outreach.

Building trust and a strong narrative about the vaccines is imperative not only with unvaccinated individuals but also the general public since it is unclear currently if shots are waning in immunity due to the passage of time or due to the uptick in variants. To keep individuals protected and prevent overcrowding in hospitals, the potential rollout of boosters requires an informed understanding of the public’s perception in order to best address their concerns. Researchers, government officials, and healthcare providers all benefit from understanding consumer perceptions because it gives insight into the best way to frame the unified message which is all Covid-19 vaccines FDA approved— regardless of the provider—save lives.


CDC. (2021, August 16). COVID-19 vaccine EFFECTIVENESS. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pearson, S. (2021, July 2). Comparing the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 Vaccines – GoodRx. The GoodRx Prescription Savings Blog.  

Su, Z., Wen, J., Abbas, J., McDonnell, D., Cheshmehzangi, A., Li, X., … & Cai, Y. (2020). A race for a better understanding of COVID-19 vaccine non-adopters. Brain, behavior, & immunity-health, 100159.

Consumer Clustering, COVID-19, Concerts & More

What Entertainment Venues Need to Know about Consumer Priorities

Entertainment venues—part of the industries hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic (Gössling, Scott, & Hall, 2020)—are yearning for consumers to return at pre-pandemic levels. Cancelled events left venues with massive losses, furloughs, and a recovery that could last into the next three years (Nhamo, Dube, & Chikodzi, 2020). But how can venues attract consumers given health concerns? Which illness mitigation measures should night clubs, movie theaters and the like continue utilizing as public health guidelines begin to relax? Right now, the United States is in somewhat of a gray area: increasing vaccination levels are encouraging, but there is still a risk of catching COVID-19, including its potential variants. Health concerns might be especially pressing for people who are ineligible for a COVID-19 vaccine or live in the same household as others who are ineligible.

However, consumers are likely eager to return to such venues. This comes as no surprise given the jarring alterations to daily life and devastation people have been forced to reckon with. But some consumers will prefer more safety measures (e.g., face masks and hand sanitizer) than others at public outings. In a survey of over 1,000 people from Croatia, Slovenia and Iran, measures like hand sanitizer availability and venue disinfection were perceived to be most important among respondents when attending sporting events (Perić et al., 2021). Among respondents in Croatia and Slovenia, who were less impacted by COVID-19 relative to those in Iran at the time of publication, limiting food and beverage availability at sporting venues was perceived to be relatively less important. If more venues were aware of consumer priorities, they could more selectively invest in COVID-19 mitigation strategies, which are sometimes costly.

The Study

Using HCD’s MaxImplicit methodology, we asked (n=250) people to rank COVID-19 mitigation measures at entertainment venues according to their perceived importance. This general population study was conducted in mid-July 2021. The first portion of the survey was conducted using the MaxDiff methodology, which illustrates strong predictors of what will influence respondents (Orme, 2009). Then, we measured the implicit associations respondents hold between venues (e.g., movie theaters and concerts) and their attributes, such as hygienic, crowded, and fun, using an Implicit Association Test (IAT). These complementary measures help to reveal gaps between consumer needs and venue perceptions.

MaxDiff Results

The MaxDiff revealed the top five consumer needs below. Interestingly, these needs highlight actions (e.g., deep cleaning and ventilation) that occur before arrival. In other words, they are largely not visible at the venue itself. This implies consumers appear to prioritize trust and reliability indirectly.

Top-Ranked Needs (MaxDiff)

In contrast with the top needs, the bottom five needs below largely involve specific and visible COVID-19 protection measures. These bottom needs are somewhat burdensome for consumers as well. Collectively, the MaxDiff findings suggest that consumers might be looking to place the onus of enacting safety measures onto the venues.

Bottom-Ranked Needs (MaxDiff)

The MaxDiff findings beg the question, which venues satisfy consumer needs? The IAT portion of the survey can help answer this question. We showed respondents multiple pairings of venues and descriptors. An example pairing is “movie theaters” and “organized.” Then, respondents revealed their association between the two by hitting the spacebar on their keyboard or touching the screen, depending on their device. Importantly, the IAT is a timed reaction test; a faster reaction implies a stronger association. Respondents could also indicate a lack of association by simply not hitting the spacebar or touching the screen. Nine venues and ten descriptors were tested in this study.

IAT Results

Below is a summary of the IAT findings in relation to the MaxDiff findings. The top needs can be considered related to the attributes Safe, Reliable, and Organized, which were tested in the IAT. The venues on the right—the “Top Venues”—were given their status because they had at least a minimum association with each of the words Safe, Reliable, and Organized. While these venues appear to satisfy consumer needs, the “Bottom Venues” (not listed in the graphic) do not. These include Amusement Parks, Indoor Bars and Nightclubs, Indoor Music Concerts, Indoor Sporting Events, and Outdoor Multi-Day Music Festivals. Therefore, we can recommend that these venues highlight their attributes of Safety, Reliability, and Organization within their messaging to better satisfy consumer needs.

Consumer Clustering

Another useful way to gather insights from these data is through consumer clustering. This technique allows for consumer segmentation according to similarity. Specifically, K-Means clustering was performed using the MaxDiff data (results shown below) using the software R, resulting in three consumer clusters. The Dimensions represent “collapsed” data. Instead of mapping consumers by the numerous individual variables that were collected, they were mapped according to Dimensions which help summarize the key drivers behind the clusters. The percentages next to the Dimensions indicate how much that Dimension is contributing to the overall clustering. Further, each has a unique profile. The top three variables contributing to Dimension 1 include 1) I feel I will belong at the venue, 2) The experience feels luxurious, and 3) The experience is fun. For Dimension 2, they are 1) The venue makes me feel safe, 2) The venue will require a quarantine period, and 3) The venue is hygienic.

What does each cluster look like? Even before summarizing the clusters by demographics, we can already see from the figure above that clusters 1 and 3 have some overlap. Cluster 2, however, is more of an “island” in that it has little overlap with the others. This observation is consistent in the cluster profiles shown below. From left to right, the consumer groupings were dubbed according to their most distinctive demographics: 1) Diverse Hesitant, 2) Conservative, and 3) Vaccinated. Among the unvaccinated segments of the Diverse Hesitant and Conservative clusters, 94% and 77% of them were unsure or unwilling to get vaccinated against COVID-19, respectively.

Aside from vaccination, the other demographics that distinguish the clusters include political leaning and the top needs indicated in the MaxDiff. While the Diverse Hesitant and Vaccinated Liberals clusters prioritize clear precautions at venues, the Conservative cluster desires fun and freedom of choice. With these findings in mind, venues can consider which demographics they cater to—or want to cater to—and create targeted communications.

Actionable Insights

Overall, there are several key findings produced by this study. It is important to recognize, however, that 1) the COVID-19 situation is very dynamic, and 2) the survey was conducted in July 2021. Over time, the COVID-19 situation—and consumer needs along with it—might change. Four key insights are shared below. Collectively, they prompt entertainment venues to consider their perceptions, investments in COVID-19 protection measures, and target audiences. Without careful consideration of these areas, venues run the risk of failing to resonate with consumers. And while a “wait it out” strategy might be appropriate for some contexts, COVID-19 does not appear to be one of them, meaning venues should proactively fine-tune their strategies.   


Gössling, S., Scott, D., & Hall, C. M. (2020). Pandemics, tourism and global change: a rapid assessment of COVID-19. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 29(1), 1-20.

HCD Research. (n.d.). Implicit Association & Response [White paper].

HCD Research. (n.d.). Max Diff Scaling [White paper].

HCD Research. (n.d.). MaxImplicit [White paper].

Nhamo, G., Dube, K., & Chikodzi, D. (2020). Implications of COVID-19 on gaming, leisure and entertainment industry. In Counting the Cost of COVID-19 on the Global Tourism Industry (pp. 273-295). Springer, Cham.

Orme, B. (2009). Maxdiff analysis: Simple counting, individual-level logit, and hb. Sawtooth Software.

Perić, M., Wise, N., Heydari, R., Keshtidar, M., & Mekinc, J. (2021). Getting back to the event: COVID-19, attendance and perceived importance of protective measures. Kinesiology, 53(1), 12-19.

Addressing the WEIRD problem in consumer science: Representation in Research

To explain the WEIRD problem, let’s start with a weird analogy… 

Every career involves some type of research, which inevitably helps professionals get better at their craft. Consider a baker with a specialization in pies. Custard, cream, and apple pies are all second nature to this person because they learned as much as possible to become an expert in this particular domain. Yet, the credibility of the baker becomes questionable if they start saying they know everything about every type of food using only the knowledge they have about pies. Pies are such a small percentage of all the different types of food in the world- how could this baker possibly make claims over all types of food?  

This is the exact situation occurring within social science, but rather than worrying about misrepresenting pasta or pastries, there is a bias in participants recruited. Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan (2010) were some of the first researchers to expose the massive amount of disproportionate sampling within behavioral science. The demographics for the majority of research fell into the WEIRD acronym coined by these researchers. WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Although some consumers do fall into the WEIRD category, it is very safe to say it’s not all-encompassing. Recruiting only individuals within this bracket would not present an issue if all humans shared the same reactions and behaviors, but human beings have a lot of variability. Similar problems have been noted in biology and neuroscience where a lot of research solely studied males in neurobiology animal research. In either situation, overarching claims easily misrepresent populations. Ingrained beliefs, values, past experiences, and social conditions all impact judgment, perception, and behavior. Therefore, measuring only a small subsect of the population and generalizing it to all humans is not only misleading—it’s wrong.  

What types of issues does this create?  

Cross-cultural studies have demonstrated the need for diversity in research by suggesting the WEIRD population is actually more of an outlier than a norm (Muthukrishna et al., 2020). Patterns within the WEIRD population are cited for being more individualistic, independent, and analytical, and impersonally prosocial (Schulz et al., 2019). To complicate matters even more, variability even exists among, within, and across the WEIRD population (just ask any New Yorker visiting rural Kentucky). These differences highlight the need to understand cross-cultural context in consumer science.  

Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan (2010)’s paper shares that only 12% of the world’s population was utilized in 96% of psychological samples. This implies there is a much greater likelihood of being studied when attending a Western university as opposed to any person you may pass on the street. Additionally, this disproportionate analysis of human behavior is perpetuated by many of the big labs, journals, editors, researchers, and conferences who also are WEIRD. The study of culture is informed by the researchers’ culture. It is important to have more diverse researchers in the field to help appropriately investigate particular individuals. Without fully knowing what it is like to live in someone else’s culture or society, important questions or specifications may be overlooked. Therefore, a lot of the foundational research may be flawed or inaccurate in its generalizations when replicated with other groups of individuals. The cycle of researching only a small subsect of the population and assuming its applicable universally creates distortion about behavior by neglecting trends and patterns within other groups.  

Expanding the scope of research is challenging; however, the current literature regarding judgment and decision making is heavily biased since the focus was driven by the WEIRD population. The past literature has a lot to offer in terms of framework, design, as well as cautionary limitations. Findings from any piece of research must be considered within its cultural confines. As scientists, we must acknowledge and appreciate the gaps in research in order to learn more about the human effect. Reviewing the main effects of research under this critical lens may be messier, but it is especially important in consumer science. Exposure to ads, products, or packaging can vary drastically depending on the context. By addressing the differences within cultures and societies around the world, companies can cater to consumers better to meet their personalized needs. While it may feel overwhelming, there is an opportunity to make major improvements by adjusting the research to better serve the target demographic.   

The Mess in Measures  

The implications of the WEIRD problem extend into the tools used to measure populations. Having a scale or methodology be validated and reliable with one subgroup does not guarantee its effectiveness with another. Advances in technology have provided many benefits for faster and easier communication, data collection, and management; however, not all tools are made equal or accessible. Customizing the choice in methodologies to the research question is crucial when trying to explore a concept for a certain group. It is important to be aware of the constraints about each tool or technique in order to determine if that limitation will compromise the study.  

Certain advancements also may isolate certain populations. For example, consider a study using an app as a way to record daily experiences of participants. Having a smart phone compatible with the app is a major limiting factor in recruitment. Furthermore, within that population, many individuals may be technologically inept and find using the app challenging. An inability to handle the app is just as concerning, since the data will not be recorded if the participant cannot access the right interface. As seen in this example, to meet scientific goals, it is important to account for the culture and conditions of the participants. For research innovation and advancement to take place, studies must have strategies in place to understand and account for the differences that may occur.     

Blind Spots in Technology  

As market researchers, HCD looks to produce the best quality results for specific research questions. By constantly exploring new and emerging technology, it is important to consider how scalable the technology is and how useful its application will be in any of our client’s studies. One of the most important parts of evaluating new technology is understanding how to use the tool, which includes understanding any barriers. Critically evaluating the tools is one of the first safeguards to ensuring useful data. We are motivated to seek out new methods and technology for specific research questions to ensure there is a consideration for the validity of the findings through its connections to the cross-cultural context.   

Awareness of WEIRD is important because research can plan and design in ways that address the issue. The way consumers live will have a major impact on the way they see, hear, and experience any product, ad, or package. As the research is crafted, the population explored, and the tools used to measure any effect, should not be taken lightly. Screening questions must be carefully constructed with consideration of complex components such as gender identity and mixed races. These decisions must have a strong justification as they will have ramifications on other research decisions such as sample size and scalability.   

Getting comfortable with familiar methods may be tempting, but the objective is to be effective not compliant. In The Art of War by Sun Tzu, he shares wise advice very applicable to consumer science research, “Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.” Understanding context is how this field will continue to grow and evolve, but only if the appropriate measures are used to accurately report an experience.    

If you are interested in starting a conversation about using the right tool for the right question, please feel free to contact HCD Research via email at or call 908.788.9393. 


Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world?. Behavioral and brain sciences, 33(2-3), 61-83. 

Muthukrishna, M., Bell, A. V., Henrich, J., Curtin, C. M., Gedranovich, A., McInerney, J., & Thue, B. (2020). Beyond Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) psychology: Measuring and mapping scales of cultural and psychological distance. Psychological science, 31(6), 678-701. 

Schulz, J. F., Bahrami-Rad, D., Beauchamp, J. P., & Henrich, J. (2019). The Church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation. Science, 366(6466). 

Never a Dull Moment? Optimizing the Value of Neuro-based UX Research

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…

Meaningful product or service experiences drive consumer satisfaction. From enjoyment to usability, designing a successful consumer-centric experience meeting consumer needs and expectations. Defining success in this space is not always straightforward, as what constitutes a good experience for one person may differ for someone else.

Can tools from neuroscience provide much needed moment-by-moment assessment of the user experience (UX)? Is it value-added or just a fancy add-on? Unfortunately, there hasn’t always been a good track record for neuromarketing products meeting their promises, especially in the case of UX. Here we will break down key needs in UX and how neuro approaches can pave a path forward.

What is successful UX?

UX design is a culmination of numerous decisions from aesthetics to functionality. But ultimately, a successful UX design must meet certain criteria: easy, useful, desirable.

  • Is it easy? Usability research is the process of making sure that things work well and are easy to use and motivate some call-to-action (such as subscriptions or purchases). A normal person should be able to use the product without getting frustrated or annoyed. The challenge in designing successful UX is that consumers may have different thresholds for what is intuitive.
  • Is it useful? If the product purpose is overlooked, disrupted, or ignored, the consumer need remains unmet. If expectations are unmet, consumers may find satisfaction elsewhere by abandoning the site or returning the product. Learning the goals, skills, preferences, and tendencies of the consumers enhances the content and facilitates the appropriate call-to-action.
  • Is it desirable? Desirability is an important component of UX that gauges how much a product or service is wanted by a consumer. Sometimes, high desirability can be expressed through a premium. Increased prices sometimes evoke desirability—for example, as seen with a sleek expensive car design.

Successful UX research can be challenging as it often relies on retrospective consumer feedback and disruptive think-aloud exercises. Retroactively reviewing a product experience may result in omission of valuable information, sharing only what is easily recalled. Think-aloud exercises, or answering questions during an experience, interrupts the experience natural flow. Self-reports and questionnaires are prone to different types of bias which may influence what consumers share and can be ambiguous or misleading if the user struggles to recall the experience or how to best describe it. Demand effects (changes in the user’s behavior caused by assumptions about a study’s purpose) and other social pressures may impact the thoughts or feelings disclosed.

Brainy Solutions 

There are several approaches to gaining insights into UX; however, determining the ideal methodology should be dependent on the research objective. Choosing the right tools involves acknowledging one tool will never provide all the answers. To gain valuable and clear findings, streamline research to learn for a specific question. Reflect on the current knowledge gaps to formulate a research question and use this question to determine appropriate methodologies and technologies. Through proper UX testing, you can find design flaws you might otherwise overlook, then leverage these insights to make improvements. Whenever you run a usability test, your chief objectives are to:

  1. Determine whether testers can complete tasks successfully and independently.
  2. Assess their performance and mental state as they try to complete tasks, to see how well your design works.
  3. See how much users enjoy using it.
  4. Identify problems and their severity.
  5. Find solutions.

To add context to fragmented traditional approaches (think-aloud, retrospective self-report), tools from neuroscience, such as electroencephalography (EEG), provide a novel way to explore gaps in UX.Brain-based, non-obtrusive measurements can ensure the experience is intuitive and optimized for consumer satisfaction through proper study design and meaningful metrics such as cognitive load and emotional response. 

So how can neuroscientific tools help?

  • Don’t make users think – Neuroscientific Tools

When it comes to UX, if you make people think, you make them unhappy. Users don’t want to see a product or service like some sort of difficult puzzle – they want to know what they should do immediately and then do it. The more you make people think, the more likely they are to go elsewhere to get the job done.

Brain-based measures can capture objective information beyond self-reported responses using tools such as EEG. This non-invasive methodology collects unbiased, user-generated reactions, uncovering cognitive states, such as engagement or alertness, or mental workload, like attention or stress (Johnson et al., 2011; Frey et al., 2016). With high temporal sampling rates, EEG records neural activity in real time, avoiding disrupting the user experience and determining the user’s interactions at any point (Bunge & Kahn, 2009). Exploring the user neurological emotional states and cognition throughout a product experience helps identify pain points and user needs, exposing compelling and actionable next steps for designers.

  • Time Wasting Sucks – Behavioral Analysis

Consumers go online to save time, not to spend it. Consumers move on if you waste their time. This concept should be obvious when you consider how page loading times are analyzed in Google ranks. Further, people are habitual. If something works well – consumers tend to continue to use it. Even if there’s a better way to do something out there – it’s unlikely that they’ll go looking for it. That doesn’t mean that consumers won’t eventually have it called to their attention but if you make things more usable; you make them sticky and habit forming.

To gain context surrounding the user experience and the paths people take, a combination of eye tracking and behavioral coding can lend insight. Eye tracking informs how users view and interact with different interfaces. In behavioral coding, each code is used to mark the occurrence and duration of a specific behavior or set of behaviors. Behavioral drivers are exposed by learning what users visually attend to or ignore and comparing it with qualitative or neuroscientific tools. These outputs give supporting evidence about what consumers find intuitive, as well as what elements advance or hinder progress in completing the task at hand.  The observations indicate what (through eye tracking) and how (through behavioral coding) consumer behavior fails or successful reaches a call-to-action.  

  • UX Testing is an Iterative Process

Perhaps most important in any research is proper research design for clear and actionable results. To make usability testing work best, you should:

  1. Plan –
    • A.) Define what you want to test. Ask yourself questions about your design/product. What aspect/s of it do you want to test? With a clear hypothesis, you’ll have the exact aspect you want to test.
    • B.) Decide how to conduct your test. Define the scope of what to test (e.g., navigation) and stick to it throughout the test. When you test aspects individually, you’ll eventually build a broader view of how well your design works overall.
  2. Set user tasks –
    • A.) Prioritize the most important tasks to meet objectives (e.g., complete checkout) with no more than 5 tasks per participant in a 1-hr timeframe.
    • B.) Clearly define tasks with realistic goals.
    • C.) Create scenarios where users can try to use the design naturally.
[figure caption] HCD’s NeuroUX study of usability for COVID-19 vaccination registration using EEG, eye tracking, and behavioral coding.

The Fairytale Ending: Creating an Intuitive Interface 

UX design influenced by cognitive data can fill the gaps within UX research. Neuroscientific measures should never replace traditional measures. However, these tools can be a great addition to investigating certain research questions. Knowing the priorities and pitfalls of any product or service experience allows designers to solve for the wants and needs of the user.  It is through an accessible and seamless design that user engagement is captured and sustained.

The integration of behavioral designs into user research provides tangible data about the entire experience. EEG, eye tracking, and behavioral coding tools can analyze the user experience, giving direct feedback on how real consumers work with the design. Proper research design exposes behavioral drivers of the user experience and gives insight into ways to help consumers feel in control and satisfied. By employing appropriate metrics for targeted research questions, designers gain insight into building clear and consistent interfaces.

Knowing the user translates to user-friendly outcomes, promoting user confidence, trust, and loyalty. By asking the right questions and using the right measures, user research can construct a consumer’s happily ever after.


Bunge, S. A., and Kahn, I. (2009). ‘‘Cognition: an overview of neuroimaging techniques,’’ in Encyclopedia of Neuroscience (Vol. 2), ed L. R. Squire (Cambridge, MA: Academic Press), 1063–1067.

Frey, J., Daniel, M., Castet, J., Hachet, M., & Lotte, F. (2016). Framework for electroencephalography-based evaluation of user experience. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2283-2294).

Johnson, R. R., Popovic, D. P., Olmstead, R. E., Stikic, M., Levendowski, D. J., & Berka, C. (2011). Drowsiness/alertness algorithm development and validation using synchronized EEG and cognitive performance to individualize a generalized model. Biological psychology, 87(2), 241-250.

Innovation Lab Webinar Panel: A Recap

From businesses to government all the way to non-profit organizations, the word “innovation” is often thrown around to generate excitement and create the illusion of advancement. Although it is frequently used as a buzzword, there is a lot of substance and value that can be gained from the process of innovation if approached correctly. Innovation in consumer research can improve future growth and sustainability by developing a strategy to take an idea from concept to creation. Establishing a space for creative thoughts allows new ideas to be generated and stretches the boundaries of traditional solutions. Furthermore, harnessing those ideas or concepts into tangible action-items builds an innovation plan which connects consumers to the products in meaningful ways.

“You don’t see new ideas by looking harder in the same direction.”

Edward de Bono

In the latest webinar entitled Innovation Lab: A Frank Discussion on Innovation Essentials, HCD gathered expert panelists from several different areas of the industry to understand how innovative thinking in research, product design, and marketing is attempted. A lot of thought-provoking comments came about from this conversation, so we wanted to share a quick overview of just a few of the many interesting insights that came out of this live session…


Innovation is everywhere.

HCD’s VP of Research & Innovation, Michelle Niedziela, notes how innovation can be applied to many different areas all the way from products to processes. By sharing a few historic innovation failures, such as Colgate’s frozen dinners and Google Glass, Michelle demonstrates how aspects like timing and alienation can result in consumer disinterest and must be considered when talking about innovation. 

What is innovation? Why is it important?

Michelle Niedziela kicks off the panel conversation by questioning what innovation actually means. The conversation immediately breaks down the process of innovation by acknowledging how innovation is needed for an idea to blossom into something of value and, for many companies, profit. Zvi Loewy mentions that successful innovation requires both an advancement that addresses a need and a consumer who is willing to experiment with the new attempt of satisfying that same need. What happens if one of those two components is missing? The concept remains an idea rather than an innovation. 

3 Pillars of Innovation

Zarak Kahn also describes a useful framework to clarify the different types of innovation that occur. He breaks down innovation into three categories as follows:

  • Incremental Innovation: Adding small changes over a period of time based on continuous learnings which result in small and slow pivots
  • Adjacent Innovation: Using an existing innovation and applying it to a new market
  • Transformational Innovation: Creating a brand-new business model

This clear and concise explanation of the types of innovation is useful when discussing potential approaches with clients. Different types of innovation routes require fluctuating timeframes and budgets while also having varying degrees of uncertainty. Understanding these nuances of implementing innovation can have a big influence on the project and promote divergent thinking to be better prepared.  

Keep context in focus.

While discussing various tools that can help with innovation, Dulce Paredes shifts the lens to focus on the context to help determine the appropriate tool. She highlights the importance of testing a hypothesis through the scientific process for validation, but she also stresses focusing on researchers’ own shortcomings. Consumer research needs to focus on context in order to give an accurate interpretation of daily life. Dulce points out how not every competitor will exist on paper in the same category; therefore, it is important to offer every option as opposed to the options the researchers typically focus on. Learning where the product fits in consumers’ lives helps reveal pain points to ensure the innovation is impactful.   

Brand Dis-harmony

Products that do not fit the expectations set by the brand or messaging often result in the alienation of the consumer; however, a contributing root cause of this disconnect may actually be isolation from the Innovation team. Bob Baron emphasizes the importance of cross-functional team collaboration by revealing how internal alienation ensures innovation failure. For an innovation to move forward in the business process, a strong support from the overall team is nonnegotiable. Having clear and stated objectives with the overall team allows space for differing opinions and perspectives to really analyze the idea or concept to ensure it serves a valuable purpose.    

Consumer-centered Design

Looking into the future of innovation, Alex Woo summarizes a major takeaway of the conversation by responding, “…understand the human side, not the product side, and we will be able to design better.”  Focusing on the user, rather than the technology or metric, grounds the research and accounts for the importance of the environment, emotion, and experience because each factor plays a major influence on consumer decision-making. 

Find inspiration in all aspects of life.

This point was emphasized by Zvi earlier in the webinar with a wonderful example that not only speaks to focusing on the consumer but taking inspiration from all aspects of life. Take previous issues with compliance among diabetes patients for blood sampling. The major roadblock for compliance was the pain of taking a blood sample. Innovation is often birthed from focusing on removing barriers for the consumer.  Taking inspiration from nature, this innovation story focused on mosquitoes. Often, we are bit, yet don’t even notice until we start to itch. If the mosquito can draw blood without us feeling it, how can we do the same? Fast forward to an innovation that essentially mimics the same dimensions of a mosquito’s mouth with the blood sampling needle.  The pain, the barrier, for patients is torn down and compliance increases. By focusing on the consumer and taking inspiration from the world around us, we can make meaningful impacts on consumers’ lives.

This webinar shed light on the multidimensional world of innovation by proving it does not have to be evolutionary or disruptive to be valuable. By thinking strategically about each individual situation and communicating effectively with your team, the innovation process can connect curiosity with implementation.

If you are interested in connecting with Team HCD to discuss this trending topic further, please contact Allison Gutkowski (

The HCD Mindset: 5 Highlights From Our Producer

With 2 seasons, 45 episodes, 15 guests, over 1500 views and so many topics covered, The HCD Mindset series has been in full bloom since the beginning of lockdown in 2020. Conferences, lunches, and coffee dates came to a screeching halt as we all geared up to stay home and embrace a “new normal”— whatever that would eventually mean.

Virtual communication came to the forefront of our means of connection, and the HCD Innovation and Marketing Teams saw an opportunity to produce a new series combining the components of both a podcast and our popular webinars in conversation with Michelle Niedziela, PhD, VP of Research & Innovation, and Kathryn Ambroze, Manager of Behavioral & Marketing Sciences. We’ve covered it all in this series of curious discussions surrounding consumer neuroscience in market research, from modern technology and innovative applications to reflective episodes on each of our guest’s personal journey through his/her career.

Needless to say, as this series has continued to evolve, it’s been an amazing opportunity to produce each episode alongside Kathryn and Michelle. In the market research industry, there is an immense amount of information flooding our news feeds with updates and press releases sharing the next great innovation. This charisma to push the needle forward should always be encouraged and celebrated. However, this series has also reignited our value in speaking conversationally while talking through it all and addressing frequently asked questions from the rookies and the seasoned veterans.

Check out these 5 clips from both seasons 1 & 2 that highlight valuable takeaways from the series with regards to anecdotes, considerations, and stories from the experiences of various experts in the field:

Our brains are relevant

Season 1: Episode 7 | Uses & Abuses of Behavioral Science (2:49-5:05)

In this clip from an episode covering the uses & abuses of behavioral science, Michelle leads with a noteworthy reminder of the relevancy of applied neuroscience tech and methodologies in research with the intricate and vast system of neurons that connect to build the foundation of our daily behaviors and decisions. From breathing to planning a lunch with friends, your brain is the source of it all, emphasizing how relevant our ways of thinking are in any consumer experience.

The Not-So-Secret Formula

Season 1: Episode 14 | Habit Loops (8:54-10:37)

Methodologies, like the behavioral economic approach, keep consumers in focus with tools to think critically about the role brands play in our daily routines. This lens can be leveraged to aid in the understanding of brand users on a deeper level, allowing more context on how the product or service is cued into each user’s habit loop, and then, ultimately, implemented to create a sense of satisfaction. Investing in these types of frameworks adds tremendous value to both traditional and emerging tools because they are grounded in our behaviors beyond surface level.

Pessimist Predictions

Season 2: Episode 6 | Martha Bajec’s Personal Journey (35:39-39:13)

Being a pessimist is often frowned upon, but what about in research? Sitting down with Consulting Director of Health & Wellness Research, Martha Bajec, PhD, our co-hosts discussed why this mindset could help your research initiatives thrive. Our team certainly agreed that there is value in preparing for any factors of research to potentially go awry, so if and when they do, you can handle each situation accordingly. Being as detailed as possible in anticipating what consumers are going to do as well as what they could potentially do instead, leads to more thorough insights.

Navigating The Shifts

Season 2: Episode 17 | Navigating Norms with Michael Brereton (5:53-7:08)

When sitting down with Michael Brereton, Professor & Executive in Residence in the Department of Marketing at Michigan State University, to discuss norms, he raises the valuable point that the modern market research industry is truly in a state of flux. With new players, offerings, and ways of thinking comes a need for adaptability and openness to transformation. In his program at Michigan State, the faculty strives to achieve that balance of foundational and emerging applications to truly create a rounded understanding of research, so when their students enter the field, there is an appreciation for innovation.

Good, Fast, & Cheap?! Oh My!

Season 2: Episode 19 | Consumer Acceptability vs. Scientific Validity (12:35-15:16)

The intersection of any methodology or approach is often met with 3 parameters of being cheap, fast, and good. Who wouldn’t want to attain these attributes in their research design? More often than not, we are faced with the desire from clients for quick turnarounds with accuracy for as cheap as possible. However, in this clip, Michelle makes it known that this intersection does not exist. Successful research programs are attainable quickly, but it could cost you more, they can be cheaper but will probably take longer or, if they are both fast and cheap, there is risk of reduced quality. This leads to the overarching truth that answering simple questions effectively can take us further than answering complex questions poorly. Establishing clear outlines as to what we, as researchers, are seeking makes it easier to draw valuable data that tells the complete story.

These 5 takeaways are only a small sampling of the vast resource of information in this series. Our co-hosts have done an excellent job at taking a deep dive into these pressing topics in market research today with all of the pros and cons at the forefront of conversation. This value in an educational understanding of these tools and methodologies is what led to creating The HCD Mindset, and we have plenty in store for season 3! To stay up to date on this series, subscribe to our YouTube channel here.

Reflecting on how much can change in the blink of an eye!

I’ve always been one to write more so with my heart than my head (I leave that to my published peers to speak on our methodologies or the newest tech). So, when our marketing manager asked that I change things up a bit and write a blog, I figured, why not share something based on just pure emotion, research aside.

Being in business development for most of my career, my passion for selling has always lied in my belief in the unique and innovative solutions we have for our clients’ research questions, but my joy has always been driven from connecting with people. Grabbing coffee, a lunch, meeting on site, a dinner, conferences, etc.– meaningful moments of connecting with people on a deeper level than just business. Forming true relationships and friendships. I invited clients to my wedding, actually had one read my bloodwork when I was pregnant and put the gender in an envelope that I could bring to a baker! We have shared big moments of life and made the everyday humdrum a bit more fun.

Then, welcome the biggest disruption that we will likely ever see in our lifetimes, the global pandemic. How quickly life changed and has remained as such for 14 long, dreadful months. (I often think back in disbelief that we made it to the Quirks conference in NYC the week before the world shut down. (& came out unscathed!) It was the last conference I would attend in over a year now.) While I think we all adapted during the first few months to the new norm, I know that I am now left hungry and yearning to connect again in those real authentic ways. To grab that coffee or lunch with an old friend and talk about life. 

Zoom, you have certainly helped, but I am so over you! We are so often reminded that you are not the real thing… the tireless ‘oh sorry, no you go’ when two people are speaking at once, not being able to toggle your video on because your 3-year-old is racing around on his scooter shirtless speeding like Luigi in Mario Cart, or the awkward transition to the next conversation in a moment of silence where we all stare at each other like deer in headlights. Stick a fork in me because I am done! I want the 5-D experience… seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and even tasting (the food that is!).

I hope this summer breathes new life into our souls. I respect that many organizations’ main priority has been to keep their people safe, which often meant no outsiders or non-internal meetings in-person, but I do look forward to that lunch at Ricky Thai’s talking about how much our kids have grown in the past year, that coffee on Main Street discussing where the next big vacation will be, or that conference where I will see everyone in one location again. And of course, all wrapped in with discussing brand and product research 😊

Hope to see you all soon!

The Brand-Consumer Connection: Finding Loyalty in the Loops

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

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

A positive, personal experience with a brand tailored to habit formation is an effective way to make a product become a household staple. Growing up baking with a certain type of chocolate chip or cleaning with a specific disinfectant spray shapes expectations and acceptability, with the brand being at the cornerstone of the experience. Chaudhuri and Holbrook (2001) explain how consumers expect a product to perform a certain way based on prior experiences, creating trust and loyalty to that brand of that product. Some brands can become so deeply embedded in consumers’ lives that they act as an extension of self-expression, a representative of who they are (van der Westhuizen, 2018). Through brand loyalty and aversion to ambiguity, consumers bypass unnecessary circumspection in their shopping, gravitating, and depending on the more familiar instead of taking any chances (Muthukrishnan, Wathieu, & Xu, 2009). This intricate relationship between consumers and brands demonstrates the importance of brands in life, impacting daily routines as well as special holiday traditions. Paying attention to changing perceptions, associations, and preferences allows brands to mold to the current needs within consumer habits. By connecting to the consumer at this deep level, brands can be embedded in fond memories, in consumer lifestyles, and ultimately, remembered for future purchases.

Every association counts

Associations, or mental links, are built through experiences. Information from all five senses—touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound—are utilized to learn and create an association profile to better anticipate what to do if a similar situation occurs again in the future. Furthermore, the knowledge obtained helps to predict the best course of action to take for each situation presented. Humans automatically evaluate uncertainty and risk of a situation to prepare an appropriate response. By creating comparisons and associations to minimize uncertainty, individuals gain comfort in making foreign concepts familiar in order to behave accordingly. By validating personal beliefs through meeting expectations, associations are reinforced and replaced..   

A consumer’s interaction with a brand is made up of several components which consist of sensory, behavioral, intellectual, and affective elements (Brakus et al., 2009). Each of these individual facets plays a bigger role in developing the overall perception of the product. Experiencing the brand, either by watching an ad or holding the physical product, allows the consumer to evaluate its ability to meet a need. The information gathered from brand exposure can be stored and later recalled using memory. But, it is through the automatic processing of implicit memory that allows even small encounters or incidental information to impact the way consumers react in the future (Keane, Cruz, & Verfaellie, 2015). For example, seeing fluffy clouds during a pillow commercial may impact the perception of the product’s softness or comfort. Every lived experience can establish an attachment between the two concepts, thus creating a conceptual link in response to the circumstance.

Neural networks, or pathways, communicate and respond to changes in environmental cues (Berkman, 2018). These connections are updating constantly as situations change and more information about an environment is gathered. The neural pathways are not fixed— associations can decay or strengthen over time depending on how frequently they are utilized. More commonly used pathways are stronger and require less effort, thus conserving energy. Memories also link performance to contexts such as people, items, places, or times typically present during the overall repeated experience (Wood, Tam, & Witt, 2005). Brands can become part of a repeated action by fitting in the proper context and bringing value to the experience.

The malleability of the neural pathways creates an opportunity to mold products or messaging to consumer ideals and better align them with the desired experience. Consider the best way to engineer a product to be identifiable and remembered by a consumer. This communication and design strategy should reflect the values and expectations of the consumer, making the product not only more enticing to try, but also encouraging repeat purchases. By designing a product which meets expectations of the consumer, it will more likely avoid reappraisal and create satisfied product experiences.

Let’s make a habit of it

Those repeated actions are frequently performed as habits. Relevant contexts cause certain behaviors to be routinely rehearsed to the point where they becomes automatic. Habits, which often include products or brands, are engrained throughout daily life. By diving into how brands are incorporated into habits, product developers can better innovate to meet and exceed those needs. Improving the products or messaging, strengthens or redirects existing associations to better meet expectations. By embedding the brands into the habit loop, brand innovation can truly impact the consumer lifestyle, since experiences are so interwoven with everyday living.

The habit loops consist of three fundamental components: the cue, routine, and feedback. Cues initiate the habit loop by acting as a trigger for the behavior. A cue can be as obvious as an alarm reminding consumers to restock the toilet paper to something as covert as the delicious smell of freshly baked pretzels pouring out of a bakery. Although both examples insinuate different anticipated outcomes, they change the environment which causes the consumer to react. The response to the cue is the routine which involves some type of expense, such as time or energy. Based on the feedback within the context of the habit, the individual will be motivated to either avoid or repeat this routine in the future. The feedback is what entices or deters the consumer to continue to partake in the routine. Therefore, consumer’s perceived response of the product must be a positive contribution or else the consumer will take preemptive measures, such as buying a competitor product, to prevent the same outcome. Feedback can be anything from a punishment, such as running late to work for hitting snooze, to a reward with a social benefit, such as seeing friends after work. Habits are governed by dopamine release, which is linked to triggering the (good or bad) motivational importance of an environment or context, thus “stamping-in” a memory for future consideration (Wise, 2004; Berkman, 2018).

Figure 1: An example of a habit loop consisting of a cue, routine, and feedback. The cue, or the mess, initiate the behavior to use a cleaning product, ultimately resulting in the feedback, a cleaner space. Credit: HCD Research 

Brand loyalty demonstrates how a product or service can be integrated and reinforced into the habit loop.  The brand can connect with the consumer by contributing to a life experience. The brand identity impacts the overall product experience, which the consumer evaluates to decide if the quality is worth continuing (or discontinuing) in the future.  By fulfilling an unmet need, the brand recognition may resonate with the consumer to encourage purchase intent. The relationship with a brand is impacted by how it’s perceived, making it important to ensure each component of the product experience creates a unified, cohesive message which resonates with the consumer. Using cues, routines, and feedback to understand where the brand can help consumers can be a beneficial strategy for its adoption into regular use. Furthermore, detecting cues in the habit loop can aid in achieving higher-order benefits in emotional and physical well-being through indirect suggestions (aka behavioral nudges). Emphasizing certain perceptions through communications or packaging can build up a consumer’s reason to believe in the product and encourage continued brand loyalty.

If it isn’t broke, improve it.

Memories connect the past to the present. It is through learned associations that habits can link certain triggers to predicted outcomes (Wood et al., 2005). Creating a brand identity to reliably serve a purpose in the consumer’s life allows the brand to take on a role larger than its original purpose. Once the brand is part of a routine, the individual will find comfort in its familiarity and build a connection to the experience. Additionally, if a brand outperforms its competition, it makes sense why the consumer would prefer it within the routine since the outcome creates a greater reward. However, to retain consumer loyalty, the brand must actively work to remain relevant. Checking in to fit the needs of the consumer means a brand must reshape to the new ideals. The brand must evolve to position itself within the habit loops. In consistently having a space in the consumer’s lifestyle, it builds brand confidence. Recalling on past experiences allows consumers to depend on a brand, proving in each purchase brand experience is worth the cost. 


Berkman, E. (2018). The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 70(1), 28–44.

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