Create Effective Design with Emotion Tracking

Emotion-tracking technology is making its way into packaging research due to its ability to capture each and every detail of a consumer’s experience with a package.

Many of you may be familiar with biometric research. With modern technology, we can see what consumers see, what they read (or skip over), and how long they pay attention to it. We can measure heartbeats and electric activity on the skin, and we can watch activity in the brain to see how exciting something is. We can even analyze facial expressions to see immediate, subconscious reactions to stimuli.

But is all that really necessary? What’s wrong with surveys, questionnaires, and interviews to measure how people think and feel about things? Well, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with those, and they continue to be used today, usually in conjunction with the biometric methods.

The inherent trouble with relying on anecdotal responses is that participants in a study may not be as honest as you need them to be. That’s not to say they’re lying—of course not. But you may be looking for an immediate reaction, and participants might only remember their overall feeling. They might feel they should only say positive things. They might forget that they were briefly frustrated or dissatisfied at the beginning if, by the end, the experience was positive. The reverse is also true: If it ends poorly, they may negatively reflect on the experience as a whole. Understanding feelings across the stages of an experience (first impression, opening, dispensing, closing, disposal, etc.) is extremely useful to packaging professionals.

See: Pain Brings Gain: Packaging Redesign is Worth the Risk

That’s where biometric research comes into play. Eye-tracking glasses make it possible to see where a consumer’s eyes travel before they decide to purchase one item over all the others. We can see where their eyes went, measure how long it took them to see a particular detail, and calculate how long they spent looking at certain items. All of that combined helps pinpoint which elements of a package design are working and which ones should be altered. But it’s the surveys and interviews that add a personal touch, providing insight into opinions about those things that captured attention. Still, without the biometric research, it might not be possible to see the one particular detail that consistently captured attention on certain designs but not on others. That’s not the kind of information that people typically remember to describe, likely because it’s difficult to recall each and every detail of an experience.

It’s attention to that kind of detail that can help designers create the types of packages that capture consumers’ attention. Emotion-tracking technology is making its way into packaging research for just that reason. The shelves are filled with items that seem identical, while websites show screen after screen of similar search results. How can your design not only catch a consumer’s eye but catch it for the right reason?

See: Unseen is Unsold: The Influence of Product Visibility on Sales

Have you ever seen an unboxing video? Those videos that people take either of themselves or others opening a box and describing what’s inside and their initial reaction to it? That’s what emotion tracking is all about—only we take it to the next level. We use special software programmed to understand and analyze facial expressions and detect joy, happiness, anger, disgust, and everything in between.

A recent graduate student conducted a study of label colors on kombucha tea using facial analysis software. The participants were provided samples of kombucha that were placed in front of bottles bearing different colored labels. While survey data generally reported a positive flavor experience, the facial analysis software revealed that some colors elicited a more negative experience after tasting. That’s the type of information a packaging professional needs to know. (Read more here.) 

Screen Shot 2021 01 27 At 4 31 02 PmEmotions can run the gamut during a single experience, too. Another recent study recorded participants opening detergent box that was designed specifically for e-commerce orders. During the experiment, emotional trends were observed across the various phases of the unboxing experience, with negative emotions as a certain part of the box structure proved frustrating and positive emotions when the package was first received and when it was finally assembled correctly. These are details that consumers didn’t necessarily report in surveys, and that questionnaire creators don’t always know to ask—mainly because the participant is unlikely to be able to articulate (or recall) their feelings across complex tasks. But the analysis of the emotions can show designers precisely what worked well for consumers and what has the potential to create that list of poor product reviews online. You can see the analysis of one of the participants of this study here

From the very first marketing research study, we’ve gathered qualitative information using anecdotal formats such as surveys and interviews. When we add biometric technology to our toolbox of research methods, we gain the ability to quickly and easily evaluate the effectiveness of structural and graphic designs across an entire experience with a single product. Analyzing what consumers say and comparing it to their subconscious instantaneous reactions provides us with a more comprehensive understanding of how designs influence purchasing decisions, product use, and proper disposal. Many design decisions are driven by feelings, so consider measuring the impact of those feelings through the expressions and emotions of your consumer in your next project. 

Dr. R. Andrew Hurley is an Associate Professor at Clemson University. He can be reached at

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