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Measuring Emotion in the New World of CX

May 21st 2019

Customer experience has been a buzzword for several years, rising to the top of the marketing agenda as more companies make it a priority. Forrester states, “CX transformation is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s a necessity.”

Assuming you agree with the importance of CX, the first step in improving it is to measure it. You’re probably familiar with popular CX measurements like customer satisfaction, net promoter scores (NPS) and customer effort scores (CES). Yet, a large amount of a brand’s customer experience is emotional, as any relationship that involves people involves emotions. And, these emotions play a big role in people’s decision-making processes. How a person feels about a product or service in the moment activates memories and triggers behavior that influences their rational responses – whether they buy a product, talk about it with others or recommend it. In this way, emotions not only drive human behavior, but they impact business as well. They can enhance or damage the overall experience or the brand itself. According to the Harvard Business Review, “When companies connect with customers’ emotions, the payoff can be huge.”

Whether emotions can be reliably measured and how remains controversial. If you stay abreast of market research trends and innovations, you might surmise that traditional research approaches like surveys are a waste of time. Or, that nonconscious methods like neurophysiology, facial coding and eye tracking are replacing tired, outdated research approaches. Neither is true.

It's a Team Sport, Not a Turf War

Advances in understanding of brain and perceptual science, along with psychology and behavioral science, are fostering more comprehensive understanding of people and emotions than ever before. And, in the hands of skilled researchers, emerging, nonconscious methods combined with traditional, conscious techniques (like surveys or interviews) yields deeper understanding of human emotion than either accomplishes alone. Measurement techniques should work together, complementing one another to further human understanding – it’s a team sport, not a turf war.

Let me explain by reviewing some of the top measurement methods, their strengths and limitations.


The large and growing field of neuroscience offers several nonconscious measurement options.  Neurophysiology involves measuring brain and physiological activity that captures affect. Common techniques include brain scanning (e.g., via fMRI, EEG) and biometrics (e.g., galvanic skin response, heart rate).

  • fMRI measures brain activity, detecting changes in blood flow and oxygenation that occur in response to neural activity. In terms of emotion, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University have been able to correctly identify the emotions felt by a person who is looking at a stimulus. The process involves people lying in very expensive machines while brain images are taken every few seconds, obviously limiting its current viability for most practical market research.
  • EEG scanners measure brain wave activity using a headset with multiple electrodes attached to the scalp. Neurons firing in the brain cause electrical activity, which is gathered by the electrodes. The technology is becoming more portable and accessible, yet data has been difficult to interpret for business applications.
  • Physiological measurements of parts of a person’s nervous system, including heart rate, skin conductance and respiration, vary depending on the intensity of emotion felt when presented with a stimulus. Some companies offer measurement as a supplement to more traditional research methods because specific emotions are not identifiable and data interpretations are unclear, such as with an EEG.

Behavioral expression involves capturing outward, observable indications of affect. Common techniques measure facial muscle movement, eye tracking, pupil dilation, voice expressions and body posture.

  • Facial coding measures human emotions through facial expressions and muscle movement. These are recorded using webcams, with emotions coded by proprietary computer algorithms. Facial coding is becoming more portable and accessible as the proliferation of webcams makes it easier and cheaper to access people anywhere. However, accuracy of the range and depth of emotion observed through the face has been debated, and lack of cross-culture validation in some cases is limiting.
  • Eye tracking uses camera and infrared technology to analyze eye movements while people watch stimuli (e.g., in-store, on-screen), either through an external camera or head-mounted device. Computers identify elements that catch attention, how quickly and for how long. Other elements tracked include pupil size and dilation, which can be used to derive emotional reactions. Much like facial coding, proliferation of webcams means this technology is scalable, portable and relatively inexpensive. However, its ability to measure discrete emotions is limited.

Aforementioned nonconscious techniques provide marketers with a measurement of System 1, recording responses without the need for people to engage their rational brains. fMRI can identify emotions felt by a person who is looking at a stimulus, but it’s conducted within an artificial, unnatural environment – and few brands can afford the investment required. Facial coding relies on indications when viewers are smiling, frowning, etc., to infer positive or negative responses. While an EEG can indicate intensity and valence of emotional response, it currently provides little interpretation for business use when not combined with other conscious research methods. Understanding context and why emotions are triggered or felt continues to provide value to marketers.

Combining System 1 (nonconscious) with System 2 (conscious survey and interview techniques) is best, as only by engaging System 2 can people explain their automatic, nonconscious System 1 feelings. This approach is validated in a recent study by Shen and Morris, who found that neuromarketing techniques become even more useful when combined with traditional research methods (An Integrative Study of Self-Reporting and fMRI Measures, Journal of Advertising Research, June 2016). A few traditional methods for supplementing nonconscious techniques to more deeply understand emotion follow.

To start, direct self-report can ask people to indicate their emotions – verbally and/or visually. Rating scales or checklists are common and can be used to validate observations from nonconscious methods. For example, ask people how they “felt” after a specific interaction with your company or brand (e.g., what emotion best describes your recent experience?). As an agency, we’ve found value in applying Robert Plutchik’s psychoevolutionary theory of emotion as a model to identify emotions. His "wheel of emotions" is frequently used by CX experts as a guide to better understand human emotions. Or, instead of relying on the use of words, expressive cartoon animations or face illustrations can be used to identify emotions experienced at particular moments in time. The Self-Assessment Manikin (SAM) is a well-known example of a nonverbal pictorial scale developed in the 1980s for the measurement of pleasure arousal, and dominance. Finally, follow questions with open-ended, exploratory probes to understand why those emotions were experienced (e.g., specific pain points, unmet needs, moments of delight).

Widely popular across traditional research practices are projective techniques rooted in clinical psychology (i.e., indirect methods typically used in qualitative research). Common techniques involve showing respondents ambiguous images like thematic apperception test scenes (or Rorschach inkblots) and having people describe why an image characterizes their experience (or brand), how it makes them feel, and why. Proponents of the technique assert that peoples’ narratives reveal their unconscious thoughts, motives and emotions, and can be used to validate and more deeply explore observations collected using nonconscious methods.

Last, empathy is a critical skill in truly understanding human emotion – the ability to step into someone else’s shoes to feel and experience the world from their perspective and their individual experience. Laddering is a commonly used qualitative technique, and empathic laddering, which focuses on feelings, is gaining traction. The approach supplements traditional laddering interviews with questions like, “How do you feel about that? Why do you feel that is? Why do you feel that?” The idea is that the empathic laddering ladders up (or down) to deeper emotional drivers so marketers better understand people’s emotional world and have the context needed to create ideas that better engage people emotionally.

“People don't buy for logical reasons. They buy for emotional reasons.” – Zig Ziglar

This post scratches the surface of the staggering number and variety of emotional measures available today, which continue to evolve and grow. Regardless of the combination of techniques used, businesses must start measuring experiences and associated emotional responses if emotions are an integral part of customer acquisition, loyalty and retention. Business must first recognize the value behind measuring emotions and finally integrate the metric to the current customer experience measurement process. Emotionally driven growth opportunities exist across brands’ customer experience strategies, not just in traditional brand positioning and advertising strategies. Some brands by nature may have an easier time making such connections, but a company doesn’t have to be born with the emotional DNA of Disney to succeed. Even a condiment or cleaning product can forge powerful emotional connections across the customer journey.

Want to learn more how your brand can build more emotional connections? Contact Jennifer Hirt-Marchand, partner and research director.