Connecting With Consumers: The How and Why of Consumer Science (Part 1 in a blog series)

This is part 1 in a blog series covering how we use consumer research to improve consumer products and communications. In this series we will be discussing different methodologies and their applications including: traditional, psychological and neuro based research, claims communications and substantiation, packaging applications, user experience (UX) research, branding, etc.

What is consumer science?

If you Google “consumer science” you will see a definition pop up stating:

Consumer science is a social discipline that focuses on the interaction between people and the environment. Some of the topics addressed by a specialist in consumer science are nutrition, aging, housing, food safety, community, and parenting. – via study.com/consumer_science_degree.html

If this sounds vague to you, that’s because it is. It seemingly would define consumer science as pretty much everything and anything. However, when speaking in terms of market research, marketing or product design, “consumer science” has a more important purpose. Consumer science can then be defined as a disciple of understanding consumer choices, behaviors/routines, and preferences in relation to products (including media, packaged goods, communications, food/beverage, user experience, etc.). The reason it is important for marketers and product designers to understand consumers is so they can ensure that their promises meet consumer expectations and thereby making better and more appealing products for increasing sales (and re-purchase).

How does consumer science or market research help both marketers and product designers?

A common tool used in consumer science is the survey. It’s how we can find out what consumers think about our product… it’s simple, we ask them.

Did you like this product?

Would you purchase this product?

We often ask these questions with statements and scales:

I would purchase this product.
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The answers we get when we ask consumers what they think can be a great pat on the back for a job well done, or possibly a caution to go back to the drawing board to make improvements before releasing a product.

But often these types of surveys don’t provide enough information to make real decisions on product performance. This is because they do not tell us WHY the consumer felt this way. Yes, we can ask more questions: rate the intensity of the fragrance; check all emotions that apply to your experience; this flavor is appropriate for this product…

But these can all be difficult questions for a consumer to answer. Even the simple question “do you like this product?” can be difficult for the consumer to answer, but even more difficult for the product designer to figure out why they like or do not like it.

To solve this problem, qualitative research can be added. While survey/quantitative research can involve hundreds of consumer respondents to surveys, qualitative studies, like focus groups or interviews, may only involve 10 or 20 consumers. Using this approach, researchers can dive deeper into consumers’ thoughts and answers providing more information to add to the survey findings.

However, the problem with most qualitative methods is that they can introduce some influence or bias to the respondents, making it difficult for consumers to reveal their true feelings or reactions. Sometimes simply being asked by an interviewer may make the consumer feel judged or uncomfortable. Sometimes a consumer may feel intimidated by the opinions of others in a focus group. Sometimes the interviewer or other members of the focus group can sway the opinion of some consumers.

So is it possible to get to the true consumer reaction?

Whether it is survey or interview or focus group, these are all true consumer reactions. Can people lie in surveys? Yes, but that is why we aggregate the results of large groups for surveys. Can consumers’ answers be influenced? Yes, that is why having skilled interviewers or focus group moderators is essential to avoiding these problems.

So we do our best to make sure that we are getting the best information we can.

But another option is to not ask them at all.

Using applied consumer neuroscience (a combination of psychology and neuroscience methodologies for understanding consumers) can help us learn about consumer preferences, choices, behaviors, etc. without having to interfere with their thoughts by asking them. Or more importantly, it can help us understand the WHY behind consumer preferences, choices and behaviors.

And understanding WHY is how we can help our clients make better products.

Of course it is still important to ask the consumers, but by also observing them (through applied consumer neuroscience) and then marrying the two sides together, we can build a picture of consumer understanding that can ensure better connections, communications and creation of better consumer products.