Exploring Consumer Sensory

May 18, 2012
There are two main approaches to sensory research: analytical sensory and consumer sensory. This paper will explore consumer sensory. For a detailed look at analytical sensory and how it differs from consumer, please read the white paper titled Exploring Analytical Sensory. 

Exploring Consumer Sensory

Consumer sensory, unlike analytical sensory tests, includes typical consumers, especially users of a particular product, and seeks to obtain affective responses related to feelings or motivations on a product’s formulation or characteristics. Consumer methods are commonly divided into quantitative and qualitative methods. These approaches, while complementary, have two distinctly different purposes. Let’s dig in to quantitative research first.

Quantitative Methods

Quantitative consumer research is used to determine the relative degree of liking for a set of products or the degree of preference for one product over another. A variety of acceptance and preference protocols are available, depending on the goals and objectives of the test. Preference testing is the typical test design used for legal claim substantiation because it highlights product differences. Sequential monadic evaluations of multiple products is used for optimization or mapping testing. In these cases, overall acceptance is related to variations in physical ingredients or product characteristics to understand what “drives liking.”

As with descriptive analysis in analytical sensory, subjects are screened. The screening criteria for consumer testing are primarily focused on demographic and usage information. As a means to reduce costs, employees, members of non-profit organizations or family members of employees may be screened to participate on a consumer test.

Sample preparation, including the preparation and handling of samples prior to evaluation, is critical to consumer testing. Much like analytical sensory, variations such as distractions and preparation differences that cause differences not inherent to the sample should be eliminated. Consumer testing may take place in a laboratory, mall, supermarket or at home. Where the product is tested is often as important as the particular test method chosen. Testing in a central location such as a lab, mall or church allows for tighter control of product preparation and sample evaluation. Central location testing is typically best suited for preliminary screening, paired comparisons or optimization work.

Unlike central location testing, a home use test allows products to be prepared under normal, more realistic conditions, such as during a meal. The primary function is to determine acceptance of a product or package under normal use conditions. This method allows evaluation to occur when participant is hungry as well as have family evaluate products as well. It may also be the first opportunity to examine directions or preparation instructions. Other issues that are commonly given as justification for conducting a home use test over a central location test include the ability to address satiation. After a home use test is complete, additional information can be obtained through qualitative research, which we will examine next.


Qualitative Methods

While quantitative studies are able to provide information concerning what consumers are doing, buying, thinking, etc., it can’t tell researchers why consumers are doing these things.

This is where qualitative research — commonly referred to as focus groups — comes in to provide a deeper understanding of consumer behavior, attitudes and beliefs. Qualitative research is commonly used as a pre-quantitative step, helping in questionnaire development. Following quantitative testing, additional research may help better understand unexpected findings. However, because focus groups are relatively cheap, as compared to conducting a survey, and results are immediate, there is a huge temptation to over-use it and to use it at a time when quantitative would be a better choice.

Qualitative research can take many forms and shapes from “play sessions” for children to “guru sessions” with experts. The two most common types of qualitative research are focus groups and one-on-one interviews.

  • Focus groups: In a group setting, elements include 6–10 pre-recruited respondents that fit specific demographics, attitudinal and/or usage characteristics for discussion about a given product or topic. A trained moderator typically stimulates and directs the discussion to cover the topics of interest.

  • One-on-one: A one-on-one setting a trained moderator guides a single respondent through an in-depth discussion. Group interaction is lacking, but more extensive probing may occur.

Qualitative research does come with abuses. Due it its novelty, research may overlook the small group dynamics that allow for group interaction, the dominance of a single individual or the possibility of interview bias. Another common mistake is the desire to quantify the information obtained from qualitative research. This is unwise, because the sample size is small and the population is generally specifically recruited. Finally, information obtained by these techniques are dependent on emotional responses that may be affected be research conditions, therefore, the results and conclusions are exploratory, not conclusive.

In conclusion, by conducting up-front consumer sensory research, you are ensured you will be marketing a product your consumer like, which in-turn means repeat sales.