OK then…deep breath, count to three and just say it!

“I am a natural born sceptic”.

There, I did it! Phew. It really does feel so much better to say that out loud rather than bottling it up, slowly turn puce in the face and eventually, but inevitably, succumbing to the depressingly predictable heart attack. Before you say anything, I didn’t ask to be this way; rather I feel it was a slide into inevitability…I blame my parents.

So yes, it’s true, I often meet the ‘next big thing’ with a sense of weary incredulity. I admit, I do have my doubts about research tools that arrive with great fanfare, hot out of the blocks from Silicon Valley but are ultimately doomed to be left gathering dust on a shelf. However, I am always open to challenge (as any good researcher should be), so when HRW came across facial coding, it sounded like an excellent opportunity to assess if we could (and indeed should) add another string to our bow.

We decided to trial facial coding in a concept testing study. Concept testing can be challenging in terms of accurately capturing and clearly defining HCPs’ reactions to materials. In addition, being
able to measure and interpret both what is said and what is unsaid across a number of different metrics, could be part of a research holy grail and ensure our clients act on the most complete picture.

In this case, respondents were asked to view a video of 5 static concepts whilst their reactions (capturing smile, surprise, concentration, dislike and attention) were measured. The software combines them into two key metrics, expressiveness and valence. Ultimately, reactions across a number of HCPs were aggregated to give meaningful and distinct outputs against each concept. The results allowed us to validate the findings and recommendations gleaned from the more ‘traditional’ part of the interview, thereby increasing our client’s confidence in our recommendations. Also, and perhaps unexpectedly, the data as presented allowed our clients to become even more immersed in the story.

So, what did we think? Well, overall facial coding does add value, encouraging a sense of robustness in a qualitative study, increases client engagement and adds a touch of gamification to an otherwise more straightforward interview. Importantly however, we would make changes if we were to use it again. In isolation, facial coding does not give us a sense of what respondents are reacting to; the value of the traditional qualitative approach still stands and serves as a vital tool to with which to interpret facial coding insights. As such, facial coding is a useful tool, but an incomplete one which is best applied as an adjunct rather than a stand-alone approach.

So, what is the future for HRW and its relationship with facial coding? I believe that there is potential. It takes a client who is prepared to invest in a new technology and recognise the limits that it does have. However, we are already thinking about how we can limit those barriers in order to make sure that we can offer our clients a valuable product that does not rely on the gimmicks sometimes associated with new technology, but will, soon I am sure, quietly and unobtrusively perform its valuable function in the background with little fuss and fanfare.

Don’t believe I am swayed? Just look at me; after all, my face can’t lie anymore.


By Kirsty Page

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