Lately I’ve been keenly interested in the potential application of wearable technologies to organizational and consumer studies. As a general rule, it’s bad practice to base research and scientific studies on the latest gadgets until it’s clear what their scope and impact potential is. But I would argue that wearable technologies are an exception. Why are they different from other gizmos we could study? Well, because they actually enable a new mode of data collection that will change the paradigm of what we can study.
Whether in consulting research, internal studies, or in academic pursuits, most measures in the organizational and consumer studies are collected indirectly through subjective surveys of an individual’s beliefs, attitudes or perceptions. Because these are completely subjective, these measures are not precise and are subject to a great deal of error and bias. To address this issue, researchers have tried direct measurement of physiology (such as heart rate, skin temperature and conductivity, etc.), but until now, the equipment required to measure these physiometrics has been incredibly invasive, expensive, and bulky – potentially confounding any experimental procedures and limiting data collection – and has largely restricted such research to an academic arena. However, with the advent of powerful, commercially available, consumer wearable technologies – such as smart watches – we now have the opportunity to conduct inexpensive, non-invasive studies that will feel natural to study participants and will therefore be less likely to confound data collection and findings.
As mentioned, these devices can provide exact empirical measures of traditionally subjective measures. For example, an increasingly important psychological measure of interest in organizational and consumer studies is called “flow” –- a deep state of immersion when the individual loses track of time, feels intense arousal and control while engaging in a task or interacting in an experience or with others. Leveraging wearable technologies to investigate the flow experience will allow us to detect fluctuations in physiology and to provide an objective, physiology-based measure of the flow experience. Understanding traditionally perceptual measures (like flow) at the physiological level will allow for more precise measurement and will therefore allow researchers to capture, theorize about, and design around these measures more accurately than could be done with the traditional perceptual measures. These technologies may even be leveraged, not only as data collection devices, but as feedback devices.
The new Microsoft Hololens (https://youtu.be/aThCr0PsyuA) is a mixed reality device that overlays a virtual reality on our physical reality. The device also includes an EEG (as well as sensors for skin temperature, blood oxygen level, and skin conductance). If we can detect the neurophysiological patterns that indicate entry into a flow state, sustaining a flow state, and then dropping back to a normal (non-flow) state, we can use that feedback to redesign the stimuli presented to the user in order to keep them in the flow state. Why would we want to do this? Because flow is known to increase satisfaction and return intentions – i.e., they will enjoy our product or service and will intend to continue using it and use it more often. These are good things.
Imagine in a group meeting or event that several attendees are wearing smart watches that track their heart rate, skin temperature, and skin conductivity (all emotional indicators). We may be able to monitor their reactions to speakers and/or topics through a shared app, allowing the results to be applied when developing future sessions. We could also enable participants to better evaluate the sessions best suited for them, creating an enhanced, customized educational experience.
Has your association considered the implications and opportunities of wearable technology to enhancing your offering? It may be time to start.
James Gaskin is a professor of information systems in the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University. Dr. Gaskin teaches advanced multivariate statistics for academic research and is the founder of StatWiki, an extensive online database of advanced statistical tools and tools and tutorials and Gaskination, a YouTube channel with over 130 statistics tutorials.