The future of usability research: shut your mouth and let the brains do the talking

EEG, Usability, eye tracking

The future of usability research: shut your mouth and let the brains do the talking

Door Tom van Bommel
Persuasion Artist

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Usability research has been suffering for decades from one major problem: the researcher himself.

Imagine typical usability research. A participant is in a somewhat awkward environment, feverishly interacting with a website, app or product. The researcher is looking carefully at him from the side. He often takes in an active role, by giving instructions and asking questions. The research is founded on the assumption that people know why they do what they do and are able to put their actual experience into words. How valid is this assumption? According to the neuro and behavioural sciences, not really.

This classical research method is increasingly being called into question. When you want to explore how potential customers experience your product or interface, traditional usability research is biased at best – and in the worst case, it tells you as much as a blind guess.

What’s wrong with traditional usability research?

The core question for a usability researcher is childishly simple: how does a person experience something?

Does someone understand the interface of a website? Can someone find the settings of an app easily? Does someone understand that the cap should be pressed first before detaching the bottle of a cleaning product?

How about just asking people? Scientific research on experiences and decision behaviour shows that this is often as useful as asking a fish about his experience of water. The epicentre of a full 90% of our decisions is located unconsciously. Usability is a key driver of these decisions, but its effect does not penetrate into consciousness.

When a researcher asks us about a site’s ease of navigation, we have only very limited access to how much ‘convenience’ our brain is really experiencing. Even worse, the mere posing of the question appears to induce an excessive analytical attitude. The participant will tell her usability experience in great detail, often generously provided with improvements. It might look like the researcher got something, but the answer appears to be a very blurry reflection of the actual user experience. Elements that work perfectly for the subconscious mind, can be rationally inflated to a problem, while potentially problematic issues remain unnamed.

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies another pitfall: the participant telling the researcher what he wants to hear. In that case, the participant gives a misrepresentation of the actual user experience by simply listing what the researcher wants to hear the most.

These problems require a more objective measure of usability. One that is immune to the analytical view of the participant and researcher. We have to go to the core: the brains. 

Start With Eye Tracking

Discover how your customers look at your website, product, packaging, commercial or store. Eye Tracking gives you valuable insights and actionable improvements.

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How EEG revives usability research

The last few years, EEG is gaining ground in usability research in a spectacular way. EEG is a technique that measures brain activity by means of electrical signals. It is easy to prepare and comfortable for the user to wear.

EEG as neuromarketing tool already made its advance in advertising research. Nowadays, there are very comfortable and wireless systems on the market, and it has become the method of choice in usability research to map the emotional inner world of the user.

What does EEG reveal that misses the scope of traditional usability research?

EEG measures brain waves of the different areas of the cerebral cortex by means of electrodes at a speed of milliseconds. Because different areas and frequencies are associated with specific emotions, motivations and cognitions, EEG provides a significant overall picture of a user’s experience.

Some commonly used relevant EEG metrics in usability studies are:

Workload- Measures how much effort the brain has to put into processing the information. Many usability designers adhere to the ‘Don’t Make me Think’ philosophy by Steve Krug. With EEG we can now finally quantify the extent to which a website, app or product forces us to think.

Confusion- This occurs when something unexpected happens. For example, when a user clicks a button and it does not bring up the expected page.

Engagement- The degree of attention that triggers the experience. This is closely related to the personal relevance experienced by the user.

Positive emotion- The extent to which people are excited about something. This relates to the motivation to approach and is predictive of buying decisions and conversion.

Negative emotion- The extent to which people dislike something. This relates to the motivation to keep distance and is predictive of negative buying decisions for purchase and conversion.

Combining EEG with Eye Tracking in usability research 

EEG indicates how and what people feel and think. However, in neuromarketing and usability research you also want to know what specific elements cause a certain sensation. Therefore, it is valuable to complement the EEG with high-quality and high-speed Eye Tracking and to synchronize the two data streams.

When you combine EEG with Eye Tracking, you obtain detailed insights into the emotional responses to individual elements of the user experience. It measures where people look as well as what they feel, all at the same time. This highlights extremely targeted optimization opportunities. You see which aspects of the experience are difficult, confusing or annoying – all requiring improvement. Also, you can see which elements are personally relevant and appealing, begging for further use in revisions and future products and interfaces.

Combine EEG with other neuromarketing biometrics

There are three neuromarketing biometrics that are complementary to EEG that help you get a richer picture of the user experience of your target group. These biometrics are great to further validate the findings of the EEG measurement. 

GSR- GSR measures the conductivity of the skin. This increases with emotions, stress and deep thought. GSR validates the intensity of an experience.

Pupil size- The pupil size subtly increases during strong emotions and deep thought. Some advanced high-accuracy Eye Tracking systems can register pupil size as an additional metric.

Heart rate- Heart rate increases with emotions, stress and deep thought. It validates the intensity of an experience.

Posture- People automatically lean forward with interest and backward with disinterest. Some advanced high-accuracy Eye Tracking systems can register distance as an additional metric.

Emotion Recognition- Emotion Recognition software tracks your emotions and facial micro-expressions. Especially micro-expressions are difficult to suppress, and thereby revealing, like a frown in difficult interfaces.

More conversions. Higher customer satisfaction. With neuromarketing user experience research

Neuromarketing techniques and biometrics provide the most objective measurement of user experience available. They shed light on the specific improvements that will tremendously boost the satisfaction and conversion of your customers. You do not have to gamble. You do not have to ask. Just tap directly into the source of the user experience: the brain.

Unravel Research offers usability research with Eye Tracking, EEG and Biometrics (GSR, heart rate, pupil size, distance and emotion recognition). Call us or send us an email, and we’ll explore together how the user experience of your customers is best served. 

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