Good Vibrations: Consumer Responses to Technology-Mediated Haptic Feedback
Rhonda Hadi, University of Oxford, and Ana Valenzuela, Baruch College, CUNY, and at ESADE-Ramon Llull University, 2019, 19-116-04
Manufacturers often incorporate haptic feedback (tactile technology that applies forces, vibrations, or motions to the skin) in consumer gadgets. Vibration is by far the most widely used haptic feedback mechanism in small devices (e.g., mobile phones and wearables) due to its compact size and relatively low power usage. Social etiquette obliges many consumers to place mobile devices on “silent” mode, and accordingly, vibrotactile alerts often accompany the receipt of messages, call notifications, and other communications content.
However, despite the prevalence of such device-delivered haptic feedback, very little research has examined consumer responses to it. Specifically, no research has explored how incidental haptic feedback accompanying device communications (e.g., vibrational alerts accompanying message notifications) might influence consumer responses to those messages.
Drawing from theories in social psychology, communications, and computer science, the authors suggest that in addition to simply alerting consumers, haptic feedback accompanying communications may also generate a sense of “social presence” in what may otherwise feel like a cold technological exchange. This sense of social presence makes the communication itself more meaningful, and as a consequence, more effective in motivating behavioral responses.
They focus their exploration on one important area of consumer performance: physical fitness. Given that people show increased motivation and performance on physical fitness activities when in the physical presence of social support, it is compelling to explore whether social presence activated through technology-mediated incidental touch might also improve attitudes and increase voluntary compliance in this consequential domain.
Across four studies, they investigate how haptic feedback accompanying messages can influence consumer reactions to the communication exchange and impact downstream behaviors such as task performance. In Study 1, they examine the impact of adding haptic feedback to text messages sent to mobile smartphones. They find that when haptic feedback accompanies encouraging messages, individuals perform better on an objectively-measured fitness task. In Study 2, they replicate this effect using alternative haptic-delivery devices (smartwatches) and rule out process explanations based on mood, arousal, or multi-modal activation. Study 3 extends the investigation to the field, via a mobile application downloaded onto participants’ own smartphones, and provides preliminary evidence for the mediational role of social presence. Lastly, Study 4 establishes more definitive support for social presence as the underlying mechanism.
In sum, the studies demonstrate that haptic alerts can increase feelings of social presence and improve user performance on related physical tasks. These findings contribute to the literature on consumer-product interactions by uncovering an important antecedent of consumer responsiveness to technological engagement, and documenting how and when technology-mediated haptic feedback may serve as a rough surrogate for incidental interpersonal touch.
Further, this work is the first to examine consumer responses to haptic exchanges “initiated” by the product itself (with the product acting as an active agent).
This research provides valuable insights for both industry, and public policy. Its findings provide applied value for mobile marketers and gadget designers, and has important implications for consumer compliance in health and fitness domains. Brand managers can choose to add haptic feedback to communications on such devices, and these findings suggest that doing so might be an easy way to positively influence consumers’ responses to the messages and improve attitudes towards the sender. Similar logic can be applied to within-app brand communications. Haptic feedback can be programmed into an apps functionality during the software-development phase and may improve consumer engagement with the app itself and strengthen consumer connections with the brand or company.
In terms of public policy, three of these empirical studies demonstrated that haptic feedback can bolster the effectiveness of messages geared toward improving users’ physical fitness and health. The authors suggest that developers of these health and fitness applications should consider incorporating haptic feedback into such motivational communication attempts.
Rhonda Hadi is Associate Professor of Marketing at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. Ana Valenzuela is Professor of Marketing at Baruch College, CUNY, and at ESADE-Ramon Llull University,
This research was funded by MSI Research Grant #42012 awarded to both authors. The authors would like to thank Immersion for their assistance in developing the mobile app used in study 3, Professors Andrew Stephen and Gert Cornelissen for their helpful comments on an early version of this manuscript, and participants at the Association for Consumer Research conference and the Society for Consumer Psychology Conference for their helpful feedback on this project.
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