Facial Coding in Research


Facial Coding in Research

shutterstock_660558901 (1)

Say cheese! 

I must confess. Whether I am reacting to a post on social media, or texting my friends and family, I often find myself using emoticons—those symbols that express 😊, or ☹ or 😉 among others. In the absence of verbal communication, these symbols help to convey my emotions. 

Unless you are an embodiment of Neo from Matrix, humans naturally react with emotions. Their behaviours are largely determined by these emotions, both conscious and unconscious1. For marketers, a methodology that captures these emotions is critical to understanding consumer behaviour. Understanding what consumers like or dislike seems like an easy task—why not just ask them? But why does this not always work? Even skilled researchers, who are highly trained at decoding the consumer language, expect them to be able to articulate their thoughts and feelings2. This is where the challenge lies, and this is where alternative techniques like facial coding can help.

What is Facial Coding?

A picture containing person, wearing, head, close

Description automatically generated

By simply referencing against this catalogue, researchers can get an understanding of what people feel. But the utility of facial coding does not end at just decoding these high-level expressions4. Enhanced facial coding softwares can even pick up micro-expressions—smaller elements which together form a high-level expression5. As an example, consider an individual who is shown a video clip. His eyes widen, then his eyes narrow, and he raises an eyebrow. All these micro-expressions could embody a higher-level expression of confusion. His entire evaluation is made up of a collection of micro-expressions, many of which may be missed by the human eye but can be captured by facial coding methods. 

Popular techniques

There are three types of facial coding techniques available6

  1. Facial electromyographic activity (fEMG) is very accurate and tracks the movement of facial muscles with the use of electrodes attached to the skin surface. While it is non-invasive, it is certainly not an easy and cost-effective method to deploy in numbers. 
  2. Facial Action Coding System (FACS) is a manual technique where highly trained researchers observe respondents for high-level and micro-expressions. This method is easier to deploy but requires experts to decode and compile the data.
  3. Automatic facial expression analysis uses computer algorithms. It uses cameras on laptops, smartphones or other devices to capture videos of respondents. One of the benefits of this method is that it is completely non-intrusive, and automated, and therefore lacks researcher bias, however, if the images/ videos lack clarity, then it can greatly handicap the analysis. 

Where can Facial Coding be used?

Facial coding can be used anywhere non-verbal emotional feedback from consumers is sought—evaluating store design, product design, stimulus testing for branding, communication, and new product ideas. Since the analysis is numerical in nature, facial coding can also quantify how a brand performs against its competitors7

Facial coding enables us to decipher human facial emotions and obtain involuntary and unbiased insights. As is true for any technology-aided research technique, it is always advisable to complement facial coding research with other methodologies to generate robust analyses. 


  1. https://www.quirks.com/articles/using-facial-coding-and-body-language-analysis-to-research-consumer-emotions
  2.  https://explorerresearch.com/facial-coding-research/
  3. https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2011/05/facial-expressions

Share this post

contact us