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February 27, 2009

Neuromarketeers, the Window to the Unconscious Processes of The Consumer Mind

A relatively new field in consumer research known as ‘neuromarketing’ adopts techniques that promise a window to unconscious processes, allowing companies to create more engaging, emotive and attractive products. But what methods are used, and do they provide added value to clients above traditional research methods?

The techniques

Electroencephalography (EEG) is a non-invasive method of measuring electrical activity in the brain and offers excellent temporal resolution, allowing the measurement of activity the moment a stimuli is presented. However, the spatial resolution is not as accurate as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which can pinpoint the brain areas that are active.

EEG sensors can be incorporated into a headset or hat, with arguably little intrusion to the user. In addition, EEG has advantages such as relatively lower cost and vastly increased portability and maneuverability. While relatively new to consumer testing, EEG is widely proven in providing the therapeutic application of neurofeedback, to alleviate conditions from addiction and anxiety to migraine and stroke recovery.

More established physiological measures, such as galvanic skin response (GSR) and heart rate monitoring, have proved to be reliable stress indicators – GSR has evolved from lie-detection into areas such as self-help and self relaxation – and can be used to demonstrate the presence of emotional responses to test materials.

Insights can be gained when combining neurological readings at different levels (attention, engagement and emotional), with physiological readings (eye-tracking, facial expression recognition, galvanic skin response, heart rate monitoring) and in-depth interviews to provide a broader picture of user experience.

Consumer research application

Several application areas have benefitted from neuromarketing research which interprets and combines the outputs from these different levels into meaningful results. The application areas most relevant to neuromarketing are those which invoke high levels of engagement, cognitive load or emotional responses, including:

  • Gaming
    • Real-time arousal and engagement levels can be used to inform game development as well as comparing different game experiences and environments.
  • Advertising
    • Internet, TV, outdoor and in-game advertising can be studied by combining EEG readings with in-depth interview analysis to reveal the impact of first impressions, real-time arousal, engagement and emotional impact to different advertising vignettes.
  • Product design
    • EEG and eye tracking can be combined to measure and evaluate impact, interest and emotional appeal of design features, as well as providing insight into the importance of different sensory and tactile elements to overall design perception.
  • Brand perception
    • Measures of emotional arousal, eye tracking and in-depth interviews can be used to rank the appeal of different brands, products and services.
  • Fast moving consumer goods testing (FMCG)
    • Combining arousal and physiological responses with self report techniques, a robust and reliable measure of the user experience of different products can be created, from the selection and purchasing process, through to consumption.
  • Work environments
    • Emotive affects from different workplace environments can be compared, as well as the effect of cognitive load under stress conditions.
  • Gambling
    • Factors ranging from cognitive and visual attention to emotional attraction and engagement can be measured to enhance the online gambling experience.
  • Media
    • Combining EEG readings with in-depth interview analysis to reveal impact of movie trailers, real-time arousal and engagement levels, and the overall emotional impact to media.

However, it should be noted that the neurological and physiological techniques are more effective when testing subject matter with a high emotive or visceral quality, as a greater affect will be observable and more research interpretations can be made.

The arguments for and against neuromarketing techniques

The benefits of applying neurological techniques to consumer research is the ability to gather feedback on emotional state or level of arousal, without disturbing the participants experience with the distraction of interviewing and burden of self report. Additionally, readings could be gathered that do not rely on the inherent limitations of self-report methods, inaccurate reports (intentional or unintentional) and interviewer bias.

While the findings from neurological research can provide useful indicators towards consumers’ preference for a particular brand or product, there may be other extraneous factors, such as the observer’s mood state, attention levels, or environmental factors at work that are not being accounted for. There may also be limitations regarding pinpointing emotions towards a stimulus, for example, which specific emotion is being triggered in response to a particular design element. Further work is needed to develop a robust EEG measure that can gauge specific emotional triggers to a given reaction and generate outputs that highlight different emotional responses.

At present, there is also a lack of integration of EEG capture other measures, such as eye tracking. Once captured, the analysis and interpretation of EEG data is highly specialised and cannot be easily undertaken by the untrained practitioner. Further developments in this area would promote the wider adoption of neurological techniques alongside more established technologies such as eye tracking.

Two important questions to consider when applying neurological methods in user experience research are:

  1. Would these tools necessarily provide greater understanding and added value for clients over traditional methods?
  2. Which methodology and product type would such measures be suitable for?


Further insight about the workings of the human brain will certainly increase the usefulness and applicability of techniques such as EEG. The technology itself is yet in its infancy, and will surely become a more powerful tool to assess and quantify the needs and desires of tomorrow’s consumers, and is worthy of exploration now. fhios, a global user experience research and design consultancy, is exploring the feasibility of integrating measures, including EEG and physiological readings, eye-tracking, facial expression analysis and traditional survey methods, in order to better understand the user experience for a wide range of products and services.

Jeremy Wyatt BSc (Hons.), Senior Research Consultant

Jeremy graduated from UCL with a BSc in Psychology which emphasised rigorous research methods and experiment design. His first class dissertation focused on depression in young people, leading to a number of years work assisting patients in acute psychiatric wards. His creativity and skill for the practical lead him into design which he studied at Goldsmiths College; before working for an innovative product design and manufacturing company, where he worked in product design and development, improving manufacturing methods, workshop and retail design, as well as developing the website and advertising materials. Combining his love of Psychology and design, Jeremy is a Lead User Experience Consultant at fhios.

Martin Hicks Ph.D. MSc. BSc (Hons.), Senior Research Consultant

Martin holds a Ph.D. in Information Visualisation and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) from the University of Nottingham. He gained a Masters degree in Ergonomics with HCI in 1999 from University College London. Before joining fhios, Martin worked as a Teaching Fellow at the University of Essex and as a Usability Specialist for Microsoft Research Cambridge. He has gained experience in user interface design and usability studies based on mobile communication and web-based applications.