Hyung Chang, New Jersey, lab

Making sense of what consumers want

Meet Hyung Chang, a Principal Sensory Scientist working at our Consumer Sensory Lab in New Jersey. Here, Hyung describes how we develop consumer products that spark the sensory reaction our consumers want.  

What does a sensory scientist do?

Our bodies’ senses are attuned to everything around us. Each person’s senses are slightly different. They interpret our environment and help to create our perception of the world. My role as a sensory scientist is to try to make the chemistry of the final product match what customers say they want to experience from the product.

During research, we assess five sensory modules to measure the sensory characteristics of consumer products. This science can be applied to all products, including over-the-counter medicines.  

 

5 Senses GIF

When we take a medicine or use a consumer healthcare product, like toothpaste, we experience a range of sensory signals. These signals can shape how we experience a product – does it smell pleasant; does it taste sweet or bitter? Scientists in our consumer healthcare business are working to better understand these reactions, and are using these insights to help shape our products, so we can be confident they meet our consumers’ needs. Research will vary depending on the product and the sensation we want to give consumers. For example, people may want cough syrup to produce a numbing sensation to sooth a sore throat so it is important that the final product gives a warming or soothing feeling.

What attracted you to sensory research?

After studying a food and nutrition course at University in Korea, I became fascinated with sensory science – the study of how people respond to sensory stimuli.

Hyung Chang in a lab in New Jersey
Hyung in the Consumer Sensory Lab at Warren, New Jersey

This was a relatively new area of science at the time. It had been growing for around 50 years and few people appreciated how relevant it could be to product development.

Since joining GSK in August 2014, I have brought my knowledge of fast-moving consumer goods, biotechnology and pharmacology to help produce a positive sensory response from our consumer products, such as, for example, developing a toothpaste that smells how consumers want it to.

How do you know how our senses are affected by a product?

We carry out many experiments to understand what sensory experience consumers want from a product. Sometimes we do comparison tests, where a panel of consumers are presented with two versions of a product and asked which tastes, smells, looks or feels better.

Hyung Chang, in a lab, New Jersey

To truly understand consumer perceptions, we also need to test different doses. As the product dose increases, the body’s receptors will gradually become more saturated. There comes a point when adding more dose of a product causes no further sensory response because our receptors are fully saturated. One of my main objectives is to discover the optimum dose for the optimum sensory response.

How do consumers input into your research?

Research is usually carried out by a panel of consumers, who go through three to six months of rigorous training to objectively record their sensory experiences to become trained panel of consumer. There are two panels each in the UK, US and 3 in India. Each panel has around 10-15 individuals.

Their feedback and insights are hugely important. For example, they might discover that a cooling effect has an impact on taste. This helps to uncover the changes we need to make, so that a product is not too cooling or too bitter.

What is the biggest sensory research challenge you face?

The bitterness taste sensation is particularly difficult to understand. Companies have been working to reduce or eliminate bitterness for a long time because consumers do not like it. But it’s still here because most active ingredients, which stop a toxic chemical entering the body, create bitter sensations. Bitterness acts as a warning signal.

The number of bitterness detection receptors also varies between individuals, especially between adults and children, which makes it difficult to develop products to suit all consumers. It’s why we develop different versions for adults and children.

How do you use sensory research to create new consumer products?

Using the technology in our labs, we conduct consumer research to generate a ‘target profile’ for the final product – how it should taste and smell, for example. We then share the profile with the new product development team.

Once the product fits the target profile, we can go out and ask consumers what they think. Product prototypes are then continuously tweaked until the sensory panel confirm that it produces the sensory response that consumers are looking for.

Do you find yourself using your sensory expertise is other areas of your life?

I’m keen to educate others about the bodies senses so I run a weekly wine club at GSK. Here, employees are taught how to taste wine through a specific seven step sensory analysis method.

Hyung Chang, New Jersey, Wine club
Hyung educating colleagues about the senses at her self-started wine club

We all enjoy the community element of this club and employees are now becoming much more familiar with the five human senses researched in the Consumer Sensory Lab.

What are you excited about for the future of sensory science?

Without question, digital evolution. I’m looking forward to being able to see how consumers work with wearable technology and apps.

There will likely be a lot more channels where we can hear consumers’ voices and capture their expectations and preferences. So, consumer-centric product development will become even more essential. Sensory science will continue to be a unique tool to help us develop products that meet our consumers’ needs and predict its future success.

Hyung Chang, New Jersey
Hyung looking around the Shopper Science Lab in Singapore