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Interview Feature: Neuro-Guru Dr Michelle Niedziela

February 3 2022

Continuing our focus on 'Measuring Brains & Bodies', HCD's VP of Research & Innovation talks about a career in 'neuro' (with a rat allergy); quantifying the stress of bad audio on a Zoom call; whether any perfume can live up to one of those weird ads; and much more besides. Available to watch or read.

Michelle NiedzielaMichelle Murphy Niedziela (PhD; @hcdneuroscience) is a behavioral neuroscience expert in neuropsychology, psychology and consumer science. Experienced from academia (Monell Chemical Senses Center) and industry (Johnson & Johnson, Mars Chocolate) in R&D of innovation technologies and methodologies for consumer research. As VP of Research and Innovation at HCD Research, Michelle focuses on integrating applied consumer neuroscience tools with traditional methods used to measure consumer response. Interviewed by MrWeb's Nick Thomas.

Read the transcript below or Watch the video (c.45 minutes).

NT: Tell us about your parents...

MN: Both my parents were entrepreneurs. My father had been in the military, and when he came out he married my mother who is Taiwanese - she came over from Taiwan and they started a fan business together. It was the late '70s, the time of the Clean Air Act, so it was the right timing for this new technology: they were selling ceiling fans into people's homes, and they started off with a small apartment with fans piled up to the ceiling - actually my mum while pregnant with me was helping to install ceiling fans in people's homes! Eventually they opened up stores and did fairly well - they were able to see the business grow and then step back a bit.

NT: So what was your experience of growing up in that household?

MN: My dad always jokes that my first words were helping in the store and saying 'Cash or Charge' to customers... but in my memory I spent a lot of time in accountants' and lawyers' offices playing with the desk toys that they all have - those balls with the magnets that go backwards and forwards, but more generally spending a lot of my childhood hearing my parents talking about contracts and legal things and finance, all of that.

I was an only child, and I spent a lot of time with my parents travelling the world, or crossing the US, whether it was for business or for vacation, but my experience was very varied in that sense. I did have a normal childhood as well, playing with kids in the neighbourhood and all that, but I did get a very varied perspective from them, and perhaps a lot of business acumen as well, just vicariously, hearing what they were going through.

NT: I'm assuming that you'd describe yourself as a scientist just as much as a businessperson. Did your parents push you in that direction as well? Or rather not push but you know... influence?

MN: You know, they didn't push me in any direction, I was very much an over-achiever on my own! And they kind of let me do it both to my delight and my detriment - they thought that it was good for me to try to do something and fail at it, and I actually agree with that. So for example when I came out of high school I had all the honours credits and even quite a few college credits, and I actually had it in my head that I wanted to be a chemical engineer. It wasn't because I was actually good at chemistry, or that I loved it - I actually didn't know much about it - but I heard it was really difficult, and so I thought 'I'm going to go and be a chemical engineer'. I failed miserably at it, and I like being open and honest about that because people hear that you're a scientist and all that and they assume that you always had this trajectory and were always really good at it - and No, I failed miserably and I had to take a step back and say Wait a Minute I probably shouldn't have done Chemical Engineering.

When I came home my dad was really funny, he said 'I knew Chem Eng wasn't for you, but you had to have that experience and see it for yourself'. So I went back to university and started taking some other classes including a psychology class that had some biological psychology in it, and it really interested me. Then I read some books and this whole idea of neuroscience was really appealing to me, and I was able to go to a larger university after that and major in neuroscience, and decide to go into Grad School. I think the importance of failure is a really good lesson.

Rats & Clients
ing to do a PhD and be a research professor - be at one of the large universities getting research grants, and I was particularly interested in behavioural neurogenetics. That's what I got my PhD in and what my dissertation was on, and I worked for ten years or so looking at rodent models etc.. looking at rodent models and how genetics influenced behaviour, and I ended up being severely allergic to rodents! You can develop it over time, and I guess because of my intense exposure to rodents over time I ended up being horribly allergic, to the point where I couldn't touch a pen that had been in the animal room without breaking out into hives, or having to use an inhaler to breathe.

So I was doing my post-doc at the University of Pennsylvania Monell Chemical Senses Center, which is the leading taste and smell research center. It was kind of unique in that it had both government and industry funding, and my advisor there as I was developing worse allergies said 'You know you actually are a very sociable person and you like talking to people, you might do well in industry - have you thought about applying?' - because I really needed to decide what to do.

NT: I was thinking he would say 'You might meet fewer rats there' - 'though that would depend on which sector of industry you went into...

MN: Yeah! So yes my first job was a listing that was perfect, it said 'looking for a PhD with experience in psychology and behaviour, particular in taste and smell' - and that was me! - everything that was listed was very much my experience. That was with Johnson & Johnson where I joined as Senior Scientist and lead for their behavioral science efforts. At the time, it's interesting because there weren't really any companies that had behavioral science programs, so I think they were very forward thinking in that, focusing on innovation, particularly in taste and smell for their consumer products.

NT: ...and you also worked at Mars?

MN: Yes, the thing that people have to remember about going into industry... they have massive lay-offs, and after a couple of years at J&J they had a massive lay-off. Then I had to rethink what I wanted to do, but I had this background in taste & smell which made me a little bit unique, but there was this opening at Mars Chocolate, so I was able to work in a chocolate factory doing global sensory program management, really interesting and different.

When you eat a Snickers, you expect it to taste the same whether you buy it in China or in Texas, right? So there are people whose whole job is to make sure that even if there's a hurricane which disrupts our flow of peanuts from Nicaragua, and we have to get our peanuts in Argentina - which is arguably a better peanut - it's going to change the taste of their Snickers, and people get upset and think something's wrong with it. So there's a whole sensory program around making sure that every product stays within signature, and whether you buy your orange juice in January or in August you want it to taste the same, and someone has to make sure that happens.

NT: In those two client side roles were you building on a long heritage of taste and smell research / expertise and just building a new element, or was it more revolutionary?

MN: No that kind of taste and smell work has been around a lot longer than most people realise. It's an old and very well-established scientific field in food science in particular. It's interesting that most people aren't aware that even for the fragrance of their shampoo, there's a whole team of scientists that specialise in that fragrance.

Writing Your Own Job Description

NT: After that you moved agency side - was HCD your first job away from corporates?

MN: Working in Mars I realised that I wasn't using much of my neuroscience background, but there was this burgeoning field / growth happening in the neuromarketing field, the whole idea of using neuro research for consumers. I think in MR in particular most of the work was being done in ad testing, and traditional marketing communications work, but I had done all this work in looking at using neuroscience in consumer products and so I actually contacted Glenn at HCD and I said 'Look I know you do a lot of work in communications research, but have you thought about doing this kind of work for consumer products? Like, I have a PhD in neuroscience, I know that I can learn the communications part, but let me talk to you about consumer products...'

NT: [laughing] I was about to say - based on our article covering your appointment at HCD eight years ago - that it looks like another job description written for you, but it actually sounds like *you* wrote the job description...

MN: I did actually! Glenn called me back after that conversation and said 'So... what would a job title look like for the person you were talking about?' - and we went from there and OK I should have said Emperor of the Universe but I went with Scientific Director.

NT: There's a company we write about called Smarty Pants that I think has a monopoly on that kind of Job Title [Emperor of the Universe], so I think you did well.

Remote Possibilities

NT: Has the applied neuroscience sector as a whole suffered in the last two years, ie because other companies weren't able to shift emphasis to different approaches as readily as HCD?

MN: I think a lot of companies have suffered - in particular, some of them have pretty much closed shop for the last two years, and some of them are starting to come back online, because people are starting to do in-person research more, but I think it's not just that other companies were still going, but also there's been a shift in how people are having to do their research. That did push the technologies that are being used in this space to being things more in-the-moment, in terms of consumers' regular habitat. So instead of bringing people in to a central location test, you can test them at home - you can even do your qual research virtually. Because you know at HCD we're not just a neuroscience company, not just a psychology company, we're also a traditional MR company, and we've always said you have to do both, it's not a replacement, and a lot of traditional MR methods have shifted to see how we can do it online / virtually. Qual interviews or even focus groups, can we use smart speaker tech, can we use augmented reality? Necessity is the mother of invention, and it really has pushed people to think outside of the traditional MR box.

We have done in-person in research in the past 18 months, obviously with different protocols and being extra-careful, and I think we'll always continue to do a combination depending on the research question. We've added some new technologies in where we're using a lot of AR and trying to get in-the-moment and in-context experiences - the past two years have shown us the importance of context, where people use the brands has really changed - things were out of stock, or maybe your needs changed because you're very concerned about cleaning. So really thinking about context in that sense, you might want to measure people in their homes rather than in a CLT.

The Trouble with Brains

MN: People don't always realise that our brains are complicated. Your brain is 3 pounds of fatty mass here in your head which isn't very big, it's a small space, but you have 100 million neurons tightly packed into this small space, and 100 trillion connections between them, all in this tight space. Your brain is constantly active, right, there's no time when only 10% of your brain is active, it's 100% active all the time: but most of it is involved with keeping you alive - so when you put electrodes on your head you're still measuring all those things. Humans are complicated, it's not always that simple, so when we have clients who say 'that's OK, but can we put some gear on someone's head?'... they get so enamoured by all the tech, they may not realise that it's not going to give them the answer they want and they end up being disappointed with what they get.

Liking, for example - people ask 'Can we put gear on someone's head?' and all we want to know is do they like this more than another thing. Well now you're doing a very expensive study, and using a tool that is terrible at measuring liking: the best tool for measuring liking is asking people, there's no physiological tool that's going to tell you liking right. EEG is not a very good way of measuring emotion.

Case Study 1 - Sound & Stress

NT: Pick out an example of a recent project you've worked on where you've been able to do something extraordinary for a client, and tell us about that.

MN: Some recent work for a combination of companies actually: Porter Novelli, which is a communications company that was working with Panasonic, and I can talk about this as it was recently published in The Verge, which is an affiliate of Vox. Panasonic had created headphones for Technics, with really great audio quality, and that's what they take pride in, so the question is how does audio quality relate to emotion and health overall? Especially during these times when we have all moved to Zoom - I mean here you and I are having a conversation on Zoom and we're relying on good microphones and speakers so we can hear each other, but when that doesn't go well it's frustrating - so they tasked us with looking at stress, and how audio can affect the stress in our lives. We designed a study where people had headphones on and the audio was either good quality or poor quality, and they were listening to essays and then they had to answer reading comprehension questions after they'd heard it, and of course the people who had poor audio were answering worse because they didn't get all the info, but also their stress levels went up, so it was really affecting them emotionally.

We also flipped it so they had to speak into a microphone, and there was a recording which asked them to repeat what they said, like when you're talking to a SmartSpeaker and they say 'I'm Sorry, I didn't Catch That, can you repeat that?' So they had to hear that over and over again, and that experience of not being heard really raised stress levels, and it brought out how important high quality audio is to your mental wellbeing, especially in these days when we're using it all day - we spend half the time on Zoom or Teams saying Can you hear me, did the video go out, is my microphone working OK?

NT: Absolutely - so what was this used for, was it to help with their communications to sell the idea of very high quality audio?

MN: That particular study was more about this piece that they wanted to write up for Vox - but we often use this type of study to show the efficacy of one product over another, to show that the qual of one product in some particular way is performing better than another - for your mental wellbeing or stress levels or whatever. In that particular study we not only measured their heart rate, skin conductance and facial EMG, but we also looked at their answering of the questions, how well they performed, and did some psychological measures. People always think about EEG but in some cases we find that it's better and more accurate to be able to use psychological measures of emotion, in particular using validated scales for stress and emotion, or POMS (Profile Of Mood States) - being able to use those sort of tools can be very informative and very easy to do; can be done virtually; people can fill out answers online or on a smartphone, and get there that way.

Case Study 2 - Tthose perfume Perfume Aads

NT: can you give me either a case study for the consumer product development side you described, or just talk about the use cases for that side more?

MN: Yes, we do quite a bit of work on fragrance, I think people forget how important it is, but whether it's a spray you have in your house or whether it's that shampoo... We do a lot of work for the people that create the ingredients for these products as well as the end producers, like a large FMCG company that incorporates those fragrances - to make sure on a couple of things. The biggest is what we call brand harmony - the idea that the consumer experience matches what the brand is saying. We actually did a project about 2 years ago right before lockdown, a group of people (scientists) at Pangborn (a sensory science conference), where we compared people's experience of smelling fine fragrance with the ads that they have for those fine fragrances. Everybody's familiar with those perfume ads - they're usually kind of weird, right?! - and they don't make a lot of sense, they usually have some celebrity in, but they're supposed to be emotional, right - they're emotional fragrances! But if that emotional experience that the brand is portraying doesn't match your experience when you go into the store and you spray the sample on that little sheet and you sniff it... that's bad. All the research actually shows that if it's not congruent it actually decreases the chance of you liking it, purchasing or repurchasing it.

We set out with this group of scientists who measure the difference between the experience and advertising of perfume, so we used HCD's emotional mapping tool, using physiology to show that the experiences did not match, where the ad was in this emotional space of being more positive or more exciting maybe, but the perfume itself was seen as more relaxing for example, and if there's a huge disparity between the two then it's going to decrease purchase.

NT: It's difficult to imagine any fragrance matching some of those ads to be honest...

MN: [laughing] That's why it was a fun example!

The Future:

NT: What does HCD have planned and in progress now, and indeed what's happening in neuroscience more generally?

MN: For HCD we've been working a lot on different technologies, for example using AR to find ways to measure people in context - a huge space to take into consideration. In particular for consumer product innovation, R&D people have always focused a lot on the product itself: for example 'This new ingredient does x, y and z', but what's perhaps more important than dealing with the new ingredient is how the consumer's perceptions are shaped by context. All these new technologies we have help to create context, whether it's AR, VR, smart speakers or whatever - and thinking about the psychological drivers and the mathematical and statistical transformations we can do. We have a wealth of information, how can we bring it all together to make a model for digital behaviour - advanced statistics, maybe Bayesian or neural network approaches. But really doing better science; keeping up with the techs; and always being open to doing better.

NT: A lot of that is to do with advances in consumer tech that you're working with. Is there anything that's more to do with what's happening at the leading edge of academic thinking on neuroscience that's influencing what you do? I'm sure there is!

MN: Well the two can come together. Rather than talking about using neuroscience to measure consumers, which is what we've been talking about, we can look at consumer-accessible neuroscience: we're seeing a lot going on with people buying their own personal EEG headsets for wellness: Elon Musk is putting a lot of money into this; FaceBook is putting a lot of money into this. While there are some concerns over the validity of some of these approaches, the idea of consumer-accessible neuroscience pushes the technology, so while I have some concerns over the validity of it, for health & wellness, what I do like is that money is being put into developing the technologies and making them more consumer-friendly.

So think about things like fNIRS, which is in between EEG and MRI, having that more accessible so that it doesn't have to be $100k, but maybe a lot more affordable and wearable so people can use it in different situations - pushes the tech in a good direction which will be more usable in our type of research. So for example is fNIRS were to be more accessible, or even with improvements in the algorithms available for EEG, it just opens up more doors for us to do more research, right - having more choices in methodology. It's important to have a lot of tools in your toolbox because we're met with different research situations all the time, whether we're measuring a mother bathing a baby in the bathtub, or an ad on TV, these are different situations and you need different tools for that, so having more options, to get more accurate or more interesting data.

NT: It sounds like [these devices might give you] the option of having more quant data fed back to you by these devices, maybe from a panel of people, continuously... is that a dream?

MN: Maybe not my dream exactly. [Mine is] Definitely a lot more small scale quant - I mean I want everything to be quant in the sense that it's robust, but when it comes to larger data like tracking and collecting consumer data I think it is valuable, and as I said before being able to put all these sources of data together to create an overall picture gives us a lot more insight, which is why we always say 'You can't rely on one tool' - you need to continue to do surveys, to give this whole picture, to really understand the consumer.

NT: Do you have a motto?

MN: I always say 'Prove It' - you can see it on the screen here behind me. And it's kind of been my manifesto since I joined the consumer research agency field, as you say. I went to my first meetings in this area and I scoffed at some of the outlandish claims people made, so I've always said 'Prove It' - if you're going to make this claim that your tool does something, prove it to me, show me the data and explain where you're coming from. We're always very open, we don't have any secret or proprietary algorithms because we have nothing to hide. When a client asks you 'Well how do we know this is real?', it shouldn't be hidden behind some sort of 'score', it should be very easily explainable.

Web site: www.hcdi.net . Email michelle.niedziela@hcdi.net .
Twitter: @hcdneuroscience

SEE ALSO other pieces from this supplement published as articles on DRNO:

Neuro Best Practice Guide - March 1 2022

Neuroscience Techniques and Best Practice #1 - February 24

Using EDA to Track Response to SquidGame - February 2 2022

Wearable Tech - Fit for MRX? - January 18 2022

Myths and Realities in Neuromarketing - January 11 2022

View the whole supplement in pdf format - download for free

All articles 2006-23 written and edited by Mel Crowther and/or Nick Thomas, 2024- by Nick Thomas, unless otherwise stated.

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