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  • Michelle Niedziela, PhD & Kathryn Ambroze

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

Updated: Dec 7, 2021

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.

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