January 22, 2014, 1:22 PM

Measuring app happiness, scientifically

An unorthodox study aims to uncover how consumers’ brains respond to mobile apps. Through neuroscience, the study finds consumers like their apps speedy and full of images. Read more about the compelling findings.

Lead Photo

Best Buy was one of the mobile apps studies

This is your brain. This is your brain on mobile.

That's precisely what two firms have uncovered in the just-released findings of an unorthodox study that shows through neuroscience how consumers’ brains respond to mobile apps and how those findings fit with what consumers say they like and don’t like about apps.

The study, from mobile marketing agency Plastic Mobile and research firm True Impact Marketing, combined mobile usability testing with neuroscience research methods to study how users engage with mobile commerce apps during a transaction. It examined 30 participants (14 men and 16 women) in March 2013. All were professionals and their average age was 31. All participants used iPhones. Each consumer’s attention, along with positive and negative emotions, was measured while they completed transactions in mobile commerce apps from Pizza Pizza, Best Buy and Hyatt.

Each consumer was instructed to take the same five-step journey:

  • Download the app and open it.
  • Browse for products and services.
  • Select a predetermined product or service to add to the cart: order a medium pizza and select three toppings (Pizza Pizza), buy a waterproof digital camera (Best Buy), and book a hotel room for five nights in New York (Hyatt).
  • Go to checkout.
  • Make a purchase by entering personal information.

Before beginning the experiment, participants took a survey to evaluate each consumer’s opinion of the brands and their mobile use patterns. They then wore special eyeglasses that monitored and tracked their eye movements. By placing sensors on designated areas of the head, the researchers also measured which stages of a mobile transaction elicited positive or negative emotions.

The researchers say that the combined neuro-sensors and eye tracking provide a truer measure of participants’ emotions than simply tracking how long an individual views an image. As an extreme example, while a person may look at images of a train wreck for a long time, that doesn’t mean the images spurred positive emotions.

Finally, participants completed a post-test survey to determine if their perception about each brand changed after interacting with the app.Their before and after opinions were then compared with data gathered from the headset and eye-tracking results.

The neuroscience mobile apps study finds:

Users may say one thing, but their actions and emotions tell a different story. For example, 62% of participants said their favorite part of the Pizza Pizza app was selecting the pizza and 55% said their least favorite part was checkout. According to their measured levels of emotion and interest, however, participants’ favorite part was checkout, at 100% emotionally (brain sensors) and 76% attention (eye movement). The Pizza Pizza app has a very simple and straightforward checkout user experience, coupled with a more immediate reward of food, allowing users to be both emotionally invested and keenly interested, the study report says. This suggests it is important to give shoppers what they want as quickly and easily as possible, the report says.

Like the app, like the brand. While the study suggests having a mobile app can improve brand perception and encourage customers to view the brand as more innovative, an application that doesn’t offer an engaging experience can hurt perception of the brand. For example, Hyatt’s app elicited a slightly more negative response in terms of pre- and post-study survey word associations. This aligns with the Hyatt neuro results, which showed that the Hyatt app experience registered a low in emotional engagement at 0%. The Hyatt app has a lengthier and more cumbersome checkout than the other apps, the survey says. The study says this gives weight to finishing a mobile transaction on a high note.

Consumers like pretty pictures. For all three apps, as participants selected products they focused their attention on images and prices. The bigger the image was, the more consumers focused on it, the report says. In the Pizza Pizza app, participants focused on images of pre-made pizzas over everything else. In the Best Buy app, participants didn’t read the descriptions—even though they took up half of screen real estate—and focused their attention instead on the images and prices. In the Hyatt app consumers spent most of the time looking at images and prices. “Since the eye-tracking and emotional engagement responses suggest that users are most interested in and most likely to connect emotionally with images, optimizing every pixel should be a core focus for design considerations,” the report says.

Be quick. The Pizza Pizza app took the longest time to open, 7.2 seconds, which led to a low initial emotional engagement of 20%, the report finds. The Best Buy app loads more quickly 6.4 and opens to a peak emotional engagement of 92%. The Hyatt app was the fastest to load, at 5.4 seconds, and saw a peak emotional engagement of 80% at app launch.

Keep app users engaged and they’ll keep coming back. The Pizza Pizza app was the only one of the three to consistently maintain users’ interest above the median line throughout app use. 79% of Pizza Pizza app users said they would definitely use the app again.

Happy app users will spread the word. The app that saw the highest increase in participants saying they would recommend the brand between the pre-survey and post-survey was Pizza Pizza, with a rise of 39%. The brand maintained consumers’ consistent interest and their emotional engagement steadily increased as they used the app, ending at an emotional peak, the report says. Participants’ responses showed they would refer Pizza Pizza to a friend the most.

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