Capturing unconscious behaviour

Using Technical Observation to deeply interrogate natural, everyday habits

How do you get an accurate record of habitual behaviours that are almost completely unconscious?

That was the challenge facing Unilever as they sought to measure the impact on brushing behaviours of two different toothpaste formulations. This had previously been done ‘scientifically’ by close observation. Researchers were on hand to weigh the toothpaste dispensed, measure the amount of water used, and time how long people took to brush their teeth.

Yet despite appearing scientific, this approach suffered significantly from the ‘observer’s paradox’ whereby the very act of observation influences the behaviour it is seeking to record. Think about it; would you brush your teeth normally if you were being watched and measured every step of the way?

BAMM’s solution was to use high tech remote observation cameras to capture tooth brushing routines over the course of a 10-day trial. Once the cameras had been set up, our research participants very quickly became used to them and continued to brush as normal.

As participants brushed, our remote cameras captured not only top-level measurable information about the routine (brushing time, for example), but also a rich set of micro-behaviours that could be analysed in detail, from body language to facial expressions and tics.

Video output was then codified and tagged by our data analysts, giving us accurate data for variables including brushing times; water usage; and the details of brushing pathways (for example, how and when people rinse their mouths before, during and after brushing).

Meanwhile, qualitative insight was provided by written diaries, which enabled us to overlay sensory feedback onto the raw data. For example, what effect does a (perceived) increase of foam have on water usage?

This combination of measurable quantitative data, visual analysis of footage, and consumer feedback, enabled us to identify significant differences in water usage between two formulations. The results gave Unilever a strong evidence base to support product development and communication – all the while avoiding the challenge of the ‘observer’s paradox’.