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Consumer Studies: Pumping the Lifeblood

By: Valerie Hart
Posted: August 5, 2008, from the August 2008 issue of GCI Magazine.

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It is important to make sure that a participant’s consent to take part in the trial includes their consent for the data arising from their participation to be used and made available to the sponsor, auditor and regulatory authorities, where appropriate. This is especially necessary in countries where there is data protection legislation, but in any event, it is advisable to protect against some later claim by ensuring that the consent form is signed.

Clearly, the research agency managing the study also has responsibilities to protect personal information given by participants, as well as to protect the health of participants during the course of any study—as a matter of course in the U.K., for example, under the requirements of the Data Protection Act. Where the product might intend to claim some therapeutic benefit or where participants might have some relevant medical condition—psoriasis, for example, in a skin care product test—it would be advisable to include a medical practitioner on the study team and also to require a participants’ general practitioners be informed of their participation in the study.

Selecting Samples for Testing

Careful consideration must be given to the products that are to be assessed and there are two elements to this choice. The first is a consideration of the material that is being tested, taking in all of the factors involved in product usage. This is likely to include the number of use occasions that one should expect a consumer to require in order to result in a realistic assessment of the product. A shampoo may require three or four uses, for instance, while it may be possible to evaluate the acceptance of the fragrance of a body spray over a relatively short period of time. The longer a consumer is involved in a product assessment, the greater the risk of fatigue and boredom. The consequence of such a situation is that while the consumer will continue to provide an answer to the question posed, those answers become less reliable as the length of trial increases.

Once an appropriate number of products for trial has been established, the next critical element is deciding which products will, in fact, be tested. In a multi-disciplinary project team, there will inevitably be a number of different opinions as to which products should be tested, all equally valid. The discussions and ultimate product choice should ideally be based upon a marriage of the needs of the commercial function (competitor products) and the product development function (how all the products are different from one another). An important guiding principle here is that consumers will find it difficult, in the context of a blind assessment, to discriminate between products that are very similar to one another. Therefore, if there are multiple competitive products that are very similar functionally, it is advisable to eliminate all but one, assuming the results of the one will serve as proxy for those eliminated, allowing more focus on products that offer different properties. This will have the effect of broadening the range of product attributes the consumer is exposed to, which, in turn, enhances the overall value of the piece of work.

Control of the consumer experience of the product is clearly a critical part of the design of any experiment. In addition to the provision of clear instruction for usage, it also incorporates elements such as the order in which products are assessed and how many products a consumer is asked to assess as part of the trial.

The order of presentation should be varied—ideally following a statistically controlled design in order to minimize any bias engendered by the order of trial. Human nature is such that it is most likely that the first product in a sequence will be assessed on its own merits, whereas the second is more likely to be assessed in comparison to the first one tried, and so on. Therefore, it is important to randomize the order in which all products are seen, thereby spreading this effect throughout the population.

Preparing the Samples