How Human Behavioral Research Went from Lab to Living Room


Rob Hammond had a big problem last March. He and his research collaborator, Claudia Parvanta, had a major study for the Florida Department of Health when news of COVID-19 reached the U.S. As students headed home, classrooms turned dark and so too did the lab assets at the University of South Florida, threatening to cancel what would be a significant, compelling research grant for work on an important health campaign.

The state had tasked Hammond, Director of the school’s Center for Sales and Marketing Innovation, Parvanta, his colleague from the school’s College of Public Health, and their research associates to look at how well anti-tobacco service announcements performed at preventing people from smoking. The Department of Health had used online surveys to pre-test messages, but the methodology was limited to subjective reports of effectiveness. With the grant, USF planned to study whether methodologies that measure nonconscious responses could augment traditional research methods, like online surveys, in evaluating the PSA’s performance.

So, Hammond called iMotions with a critical question: how to carry out this research without access to the lab? USF and iMotions collaborated previously in building the university’s lab into one of the strongest in the country, so Hammond hoped there might be a way to leverage that equipment, software, and analysis, as he needed to avoid lengthy development time he didn’t have and costs he couldn’t afford.

At the time, there were no methods to collect reliable data outside an equipped university research lab. Since USF wasn’t able to extend the grant end date, the options were clear: find a solution to collect data remotely or lose the opportunity to improve public health (and any further, residual benefit). Time was of the essence, as the research had to be completed before the end of the state’s fiscal year and mid-study milestones were designed to ensure productive research.


Building a tool for the moment – and for the future

The process began by identifying and integrating a series of off-the-shelf tools, including, so as to meet early deadlines. There were benefits in the ability to see participation (and eliminate bad data) but also challenges in moderating every participant. Early results reinforced that it wasn’t going to be enough to capture facial expressions alone; great data (and ultimately a great product) needed to integrate eye-tracking and surveys to provide as much of a complete picture as possible.



Emotion AI Opens Up New Possibilities for Consumer Research

So new tools continued to be implemented and evaluated – allowing USF to gather data in real-time. Many may have thought that this constant change and iterative, real-time development was the wrong way to develop, presenting extreme risk. But Hammond understood the opportunity and process.

Prior to USF, he spent more than three decades driving innovation at iconic global companies, as well as early-stage startups, and his book “Avoiding the Carnage: A Guidebook Through Sales Transformation” seemed particularly clairvoyant.

It’s that understanding and leadership that is turning USF into one of the leading research institutions studying human behavior – something organizations increasingly recognize as important.


Mission accomplished

Less than four months later, the final report was submitted, providing far more insight than what people ‘say’ about anti-tobacco ads. Parvanta and Hammond were able to share with the Florida Department of Health that a combination of perceived effectiveness and facial expression, two different cognitive functions, yielded the most accurate feedback from participants.

One of the big, mid-project findings? “Because we were using people’s own web cameras,” Hammond said, “We could see the severe limitations in online surveys, given the number of people who didn’t provide valid responses.”

The results have paid immediate dividends for USF and iMotions. For USF, the work has manifested in additional research grants and partnerships with other institutions, including the US Department of Health and Human Services to test how different minority audiences react to messages about COVID-19.

For iMotions, the study proved an ideal testing ground for creating what is now available globally – an Online Data Collection module that incorporates Facial Expression Analysis, Eye Tracking, and online surveys. It allowed researchers to navigate previous COVID-19 restrictions while allowing them to envision possibilities for research without barriers to time and location.

For both, the research project has provided a case study in the true nature of partnership: How iMotions helped Hammond and Parvanta’s team deliver on a grant that would have capsized otherwise. And, how USF helped iMotions develop a new product and condense that timeline from years to a matter of months.


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