Sensory evaluation is the process of determining how a consumer reacts to a product or retail setting using the five basic senses. These senses interact with each other subtly and broadly, which is why companies aim to create products and experiences that provide favorable sensory feedback in all five categories. For example, if a product smells strange, few consumers will want to taste it, even if it tastes pleasant. Ensuring that products appeal to all five senses increases the product’s likelihood of becoming popular and profitable.
A sensory evaluation is the scientific process of measuring consumers' reactions to specific products.
Humans have a lot of senses. The most commonly discussed are the basic five: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. Sensory evaluation is the scientific practice of interpreting consumers’ sensory reactions to products. Every individual’s sensory ability is unique, so it is important that companies not just conduct sensory evaluations with volunteers who can discern between different products but rather with a large sample size of volunteers.
Although sensory analysis is frequently used to measure consumers' reactions to consumable products like foods and cosmetics, it can be used to gauge their reactions to anything in the retail realm. This includes retail environments and experiences. A company planning a new retail concept might use sensory analysis to determine how shoppers react to the intensity and hue of the lighting in the new store concept or an e-commerce business might test different packaging materials to determine which feels best in consumers' hands.
Other examples of sensory analysis include observing how the potato chips sound jostling inside their bag and the sounds the packaging makes when it is opened and a soda manufacturer comparing differently colored and shaped bottles to work out which combination suits the soda flavor best.
Sensory analysis measures more than how a product looks, smells, feels and tastes. A sensory evaluation also seeks feedback on a product’s texture, the sounds it makes and the other substances and products of which it reminds users. These qualities are often recorded on a spider graph, a graph that shows how a product scores in multiple categories. Specific qualities a sensory evaluation might measure include:
- Mouth feel
For example, a granola bar manufacturer would want to know whether the bars are crunchy to the point of hurting consumers’ jaws or so sticky that they leave an uncomfortable residue on consumers’ teeth. With data collected from a sensory evaluation, the manufacturer can adjust products’ recipes as necessary to optimize them for all senses.
Adjusting ingredients is not only done to alter products’ flavors. It can also alter their textures or make different sensory qualities about the products better match consumers’ expectations. For example, a cosmetics manufacturer might opt to make a strawberry-scented lotion a warmer pink color because doing so would communicate its scent more effectively. Although changing a product’s color does not actually change its scent, it changes consumers' perception of the product, which ultimately determines what the consumers think of the product and whether they buy it.
Typically, a sensory evaluation is conducted in a focus group. This means a group of volunteers similar to the consumer market to whom the product will be marketed is given the opportunity to interact with it and discuss their thoughts about it. There are two types of sensory evaluation: preference testing and discrimination testing.
Preference testing is used to determine whether consumers like a product or not. Discrimination testing is used to work out what consumers like and dislike about specific products. An example of a product test is having consumers eat a cookie and discuss whether they like the cookie or not and why. Discrimination testing on the same cookie would be giving consumers two versions of the cookie, one crunchy and one soft, and determining which one consumers prefer.
The right environment for engaging with sensory science is one where there are no competing ambient smells or noises. The less distracted the volunteers, the more accurately they can evaluate the product being tested. Similarly, product branding should be minimized or eliminated for the test because logos, brand color palettes and packaging can all influence consumers’ perceptions of products, and if you are not testing for consumers’ input on these factors, they can be distracting.