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How Existing Technology Is Going to Drive Market Research Innovation

webcamAs researchers it is critical that we ensure our data accurately reflect the thinking of the market....in other words, getting to the truth. This is complicated by several factors including limitations of a questionnaire, respondent's lack of attention and the fact that people don't always know what they really want or need. While careful design and methodology can help to minimize these issues (at TRC we believe in using choice questions and shorter surveys) and the use of other data (which can establish the facts), it is impossible to eliminate them.

Technology such as eye tracking, bio metrics and facial recognition software can be applied to neuroscience to help us understand more about what respondents are thinking. The trouble is they are often expensive (sometimes getting the whole truth isn't worth the price) and slow down the research process (sometimes a faster less complete answer is better than a slow one). The limited data available also make it difficult to draw good conclusions. An outstanding presentation at the ARF's 75th Annual Conference showed this quite well.

What is needed, I believe, is to make these techniques easier, faster and cheaper. That will bring on more data which in turn will allow them to be calibrated to results. I believe the seeds of that possibility have already been sown. Webcams (most of which now offer high resolution) and high speed Internet (wired and wireless) are the key. Recent studies suggest that they can already provide far more than just funny videos for YouTube.

A single webcam can now be used to track what your eyes are looking at. We've known for decades that people are not always honest about what they pay attention to (I recall a diet soda ad which depicted a woman walking on a beach holding a can of soda...though few respondents were actually looking at the can). Certainly wider availability will allow greater use of this technology in testing ads, but I think it will allow far more than that. We'll be able, for example, to see if respondents are carefully reading a concept statement or just skimming it. We'll even be able to tell which words they focused on the longest.

Another new use for webcams is to determine your pulse. It does it by detecting changes in your skin color caused by a fresh stream of blood. These changes are imperceptible to the eye, but not to the camera. The possibility exists that subtle changes in pulse might be a measure of intensity or combined with other data might help us better understand what respondents are thinking. The key would be that we won't have a few dozen cases to look at, but rather we'll be able to look at this for all respondents. This will allow us to calibrate it over time.

Finally, these cameras can detect small changes in expression. Again, facial expressions are not new science. Poker players call them "tells". For example, a slight upturn at the edge of the mouth is an indicator that someone is lying. Experts can see this in real time, but most of us miss it. The ability to record this every time someone takes a survey and combine it with facial recognition software (which picks up these small "tells") adds another useful data stream which might point us to the truth. Not just about whether a respondent is lying, but also revealing a sense of their emotions.

Of course, all of this will depend on two things. First, these technologies need to continue to advance. Second, respondents will have to give consent. Hard to imagine that technological advancement won't happen...my guess is it will be sooner rather than later. Respondent cooperation might well be a bigger issue; however if we use these technologies to make the overall interviewing experience more enjoyable (less redundant questions, shorter surveys) then even that will be overcome.

If I'm right, the potential of these new data sources is impossible to overstate.

President, TRC


Rich brings a passion for quantitative data and the use of choice to understand consumer behavior to his blog entries. His unique perspective has allowed him to muse on subjects as far afield as Dinosaurs and advanced technology with insight into what each can teach us about doing better research.  

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