The restaurant chain Boston Market had a problem: it couldn’t figure out why people weren’t returning even though they said they liked the food. When customers were surveyed, they themselves couldn’t articulate why they didn’t come back.
Then Boston Market hired Shopper Sciences, a consulting company that tried to answer the question a different way. In addition to asking dozens of customers for their opinions, it also asked them to wear a portable stress sensor while they ate. The wrist sensors, which are made by a startup called Affectiva, detect galvanic skin response—how conductive, or “clammy,” the skin is. This measurement usually correlates with levels of physiological arousal, either positive excitement or negative stress.
Shopper Sciences found that diners were stressed out by eating at Boston Market. “The old Boston Market served food out of metal trays, and you were expected to eat chicken with a plastic fork,” says John Ross, CEO of Shopper Sciences. “The collective gestalt was terrible.” Ross says the findings helped inspire a redesign at the chain, which now offers food on real plates, with metal knives, forks, and spoons. “It’s the same food quality and price point,” he says, “but now it’s being delivered in a new way.”
With the availability of smaller, cheaper, and more powerful sensors, businesses are finding new opportunities to collect data on how their customers feel about them. Researchers have long used galvanic skin response to glean insight into people’s emotions, but gathering this data required volunteers to sit still with wires strapped to their fingers or palms. Affectiva’s device, called the Q Sensor, measures galvanic skin response many times per second while a subject goes about normal activities. The sensor also measures the wearer’s movements and temperature. Later the device can be plugged into a computer so the information can be analyzed.
“At the highest level, emotions drive decisions,” says Dave Berman, the CEO of Affectiva. “A lot of times people think they know what they feel but can’t articulate it, or aren’t even aware of it. We provide tools that help people better understand how their customers are feeling.”
Disney is evaluating the Q Sensor and other companies’ products as tools for measuring viewers’ reactions to TV shows, particularly on ABC and ESPN, says Duane Varan, the chief research officer at Disney’s media and advertising lab. “It’s a very powerful set of measures,” Varan says. However, he cautions that data from these physiological sensors could easily be misread: a high degree of arousal could mean someone liked a scene rather than having been annoyed by it.
To address such potential misreadings, Affectiva has released a facial recognition program to accompany the Q Sensor; the software can make use of video observations to help determine whether a person is reacting positively or negatively.