UX Research

Applied neuroscience: how to dive directly into a respondent’s brain

The effectiveness of any marketing research study depends on the accuracy of the data obtained. But are classical analysis tools capable of ensuring sufficient accuracy? Andrei Kislov, co-founder of Brain Company, talks about how his company conducts neuro research and works with respondents.

The most accurate marketing tool

Applied neuro-research is a marketing research study that is carried out using the tools of neurophysiology. It sounds unusual, but if you take a closer look, it’s not that complicated.

Our applied neuro-research should not be confused with medical research. In medicine, the brain itself is examined, while we study its reactions to the product of our client.

Imagine: you are developing a mobile application and want to understand how convenient it is for its users. To find this out, you can follow the classic path: conduct interviews with users, and ask them to tell about their impressions. That’s how it’s usually done.

But there is another option – not to ask the users themselves, but get answers directly from their brain. Find out how it reacts to each button in the application, and whether it is difficult for him to understand the interface. You can literally watch and measure what is happening in a person’s head. Plus, it will be accurate and unambiguous data.

That’s exactly what we do: we attach special equipment and find out how the consumer’s brain reacts to the interfaces of websites and applications, commercials and games, billboards and banners.

Why neuro-research is more effective than ordinary methods

If we ask a person about his or her impressions of an interface or a video, it is difficult to count on a complete and honest answer. There are two reasons for this.

  1. People do not know the answer themselves. It is difficult for us to analyze our own feelings, reactions, emotions. Do we like this icon or not? It seems to be pretty… but not very much so.
  2. A person’s opinion is easily distorted under the influence of external factors. Remember this situation: when the leader of a meeting was the leader of opinions, many other participants accept his point of view, even if they thought otherwise beforehand. The result is very “noisy” data.

We constantly lie, even to ourselves. Neuro-research helps get the truth out.

There is another problem. As a result of conventional research – usability testing, interviews, etc. – you can get data that is difficult to use for statistical analysis. From these data, it is nearly impossible to draw conclusions about how one object or another is perceived by all respondents as a whole.

Suppose you gather 15 people and ask each one to tell you about their experience while interacting with your application. You will get 15 different opinions and some feedback, but these are all just words. They are not amenable to rigorous statistical analysis and cannot be quantifiably measured, but can only be interpreted. Therefore, you risk coming to the wrong conclusions.

Thanks to neuro-research, it is possible to obtain data in clear units of measurement, and then using statistical methods to turn them into concrete conclusions about people’s behavior and reactions.

During the course of a neuroscience study, we receive data at each moment in time, so they are not lost or distorted.

Let us consider another example: you are analyzing a commercial. When it ends, your respondents will already forget half of their impressions of it. Can they remember which emotions they experienced at 1:17, and which at 2:01? It turns into the this amusing situation:

  • You ask the respondent a question: “What did you like about this video?”
  • The respondent answers another question: “What do you think, what could you have liked in this video?”.

The difference between these questions is great. You ask about specific impressions, but in return you get fantasies and fabrications. Only neuro-research studies show what emotions the respondent actually experienced every second of the viewing. Studying not the person, but his or her brain is simply more effective, and this must be understood.

The goal of neuro-research is to improve what already works

Neuro-research studies are not a panacea. They are needed when the product is working and it needs to be improved. If the site is inconvenient and the pages on it load for 5 seconds, using neuromarketing is the same as using a microscope as a hammer. It is better to engage in technical optimization or hire a good UX specialist.

However, we are often approached by digital companies that, even at the development stage, want to understand how users will interact with the interface. For them, we also have some solutions. Neuro-research can be useful during all stages of development:

  1. There is no interface yet. You need to understand what to focus on during initial development.
  2. Interface in development. You need to find out which interface prototype is better and in what way.
  3. The site or application has low ratings. You need help to find out what the reason is: analyze the application, identify its pros and cons, do the same with competitors’ products and understand what is poorly implemented and how to fix it.
  4. Developing a new version of the application. You need to know how convenient it is: whether it will attract new users and whether it will cause irritation in the current ones.

We do not know how to work with lefties

The selection of research study participants is an important part of our work, in which many nuances have to be taken into account. We created the Brain Company when we were still studying at the institute, so our first respondents were students. As you may know, they generally hold up the whole world of science.

But now our requirements have become much more rigorous, so we are working with recruitment agencies. Our colleagues from UXSSR did an excellent job with the challenge we set for them.

In our study, each respondent undergoes “double filtering”: he or she must meet the requirements – both ours and that of our client. Our requirements are also closely related to the respondents’ physiology. We needed people who did not suffer from diseases of the nervous system, because different parts of the brain work differently for people suffering from these ailments. It is also important that the respondent’s eyes are not deeply set, otherwise the tracker will have difficulty tracking their eyes. And all participants must be right-handed – until we understand how to track the emotional reactions of left-handed people.

25 respondents – the optimal amount per audience segment. If there are more segments in the study, then the number of people increases proportionally.

For a typical study, about 25 people are needed. This is a sufficient sample to make statistically reliable conclusions. It is not sensible to study more than 30 people, nor less than 20. We invite 30 people to the laboratory so that at least 25 of them meet all of our required parameters.

How to hear the “voices” in their heads

The main goal of neuro-research studies is to understand what is happening in a person’s head when the person uses a website or application. It’s impossible to overhear an inner voice, we don’t know what a person is thinking about the cool app design or a delicious breakfast they had this morning. But we can assess how difficult it is for them to interact with the product, how much he or she is involved in the process and what kind of emotions are being experienced – positive or negative.

Usually, we use an EEG and an eye-tracker to accomplish this; sometimes a polygraph and MRI are added to them. In fact, it is not so important what equipment you use – the main thing is to be able to competently conduct an experiment and interpret the results. Even a schoolchild can measure brain activity using EEG: all that needs to be done is to apply a conductive gel on the head, put on a special cap with electrodes and monitor the encephalogram. The hard part comes later.

The brain is a great critic. Our task is to turn it into a business partner.

In any experiment, there are many new variables that must be considered. Here is a vivid example: before starting a study, we always determine the baseline of the subject – the dynamics with which his emotions change. If this is not done, then all further work is meaningless. There are quiet people who are difficult to rile up, but there are also those for whom a constant and abrupt change of emotions is the norm. They will react differently to the product and this is very important to consider.

For example, in order to evaluate a banking mobile application, we will ask the respondent to transfer money from one card to another. Or exchange rubles for euros. Tracing the activity of brain areas and eye movements, we obtain data on how a person perceives the application. Then comes the time of analysis: we track the reaction to each performed action and see where it was difficult for him or her, where it was boring, and where it wasn’t clear. As a result, our data tells a client more than the respondent himself.

Further prospects

Generally, for Russian businesses, neuromarketing is an unusual thing. It is much better developed abroad. In Europe and the United States, more companies understand why neuro-research is needed and how it works, although in terms of technology, we are ahead of many foreign companies.

But I also see that in Russia, more and more entrepreneurs from different industries are beginning to understand the value of neuromarketing. This makes me happy.

About author

Editor-in-chief and author of the content marketing agency “Let's Do It”.