Emoji: The Fall of Emotional Qual?

by | Aug 15, 2016 | Uncategorized

A few months ago I was reading a Wall Street Journal article (1) about “Reactions,” Facebook’s latest groundbreaking enhancement that now enables humans across the globe to forge more emotional connections. Yes, once limited only to “liking” something, we are now liberated to share our true, heartfelt thoughts using these six alternative emoji – not to mention all those new stickers!


Or are we? Could our rapid adoption of a new electronic vocabulary somehow diminish the use of our written and spoken vocabulary?

Apparently our vocabularies are in fact shrinking. London-based expert Marco Catani (2) found in his studies that our oral vocabulary is being eroded by the increasing amount of time we spend glued to mobile screens. Even if this is the case, so what? Maybe it’s a positive evolution. Could this simply be a shift, rather than a compromise, in the way we communicate?

This is a question I became curious about – not only personally but also professionally as a qualitative market researcher. If the way we communicate our thoughts and emotions is changing, how might we need to rethink how we structure our discussions and surveys? Are emoji a boon or a barrier?

A Quick History of Emoji

First, I’d like to clarify a few areas of common confusion.

  1. Emoji vs. emojis. Being inherently progressive, the word “emoji” can be either singular or plural. But adding an “s” is acceptable when pluralizing the term in English.
  2. Emoji vs. emoticon. Uncertainty about these two terms may be an affliction limited to those of us over the age of 40. An emoticon uses typographical symbols such as :- o to represent facial expressions and are usually looked at sideways. Emoji, on the other hand, are pictures inserted directly into text messages with a single click and are not limited to facial expressions.


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The story of emoticons began in 1982 when computer scientist Scott Fahlman suggested to his colleagues that 🙂 and 🙁 could be used to distinguish jokes from serious statements typed online (3). If you’re looking for a more elaborate emoticon vocabulary, this Web page is a good reference. My favorite is a toss-up between “Something’s Fishy” and “Homer Simpson.”


Emoji – which roughly translates to “pictographs” – first surfaced in the late 1990s through NTT DoCoMo, the Japanese communications firm. I have a confession, and maybe you can relate: The nuances that many of these emoji are trying to convey elude me. Honestly, does anyone other than my 10-year-old truly understand how to decide which one to append to messages?


Emoji and Qual Research

So, back to what this means for market research. Ultimately our job is to get into respondents’ heads to understand what they really think. What complicates doing this effectively is that we first must find a way to unlock emotions that reside deep in the subconscious. After all, the root of what and why one perceives, believes and does certain things is pretty complex. And then there’s the imperfect shortcut of language that requires that we read between the lines of what respondents say and what they actually mean. Men with wives, you know exactly what I’m talking about: After five years or so, we just expect you to be able to read our minds.

At Six Degrees, our research team incorporates what we refer to as psycho-sensory techniques, such as projective exercises and visual galleries, to help mitigate these communication challenges. This approach better enables us to uncover emotional insights for our clients. I started to wonder if we should explore ways to incorporate emoji in our research, or if we need to tip the other way to provide more narrative assistance to people increasingly accustomed to communicating in pictures and fragmented word texts.

Embrace the Change

Advertisers seem to be embracing the emoji trend, if for no reason other than to appeal to millennials. As an example, this Chevy Cruze commercial, although contrived, seems to suggest that emoji and engaging and insightful research can live in harmony.


In this post (4), a U.K. researcher argues that incorporating emoji into our research could in fact be a valuable tool to unlock emotional sentiments. I’m not sure whether I fully agree with their use for qualitative research, but I could definitely see having some fun with this in the right type of quant survey, replacing numerical scales with associated emoji.


I started to consider the factors that may come into play when determining whether emoji or other types of emotion-evoking tools fit into research.


  1. Who are the respondents? Age, generation, socioeconomics and demographics can be important factors in how well certain literal or metaphorical exercises may resonate. Will they “get it”? Would Medicare-age consumers enjoy a surprising shift of questions peppered with emoji? Would they call it sophomoric – because only they would know what that word means – or this?
  2. How “emotionally deep” are the objectives? Projects designed around emotional insights or emotional drivers could simply seek to uncover simple truths and a pattern of feelings. Emoji might work for this. In other cases, the emotions and motivations behind behaviors can be much more complex. Well-designed lines of questioning, or a visual metaphor exercise using a gallery of shoes or nature scenes, would likely yield more powerful insights into feelings about a brand or an emotional feeling than a spectrum of emoji.
  3. What’s the topic? Research on the sentiment for cars or consumer goods is vastly different than exploring the profound impact of an acute chronic disease on a person’s life – the latter being the space we’re most accustomed to studying. On the same note, incorporating unexpectedly fun and unusual questioning can shake up what might otherwise be a boring or even sad discussion.

The bottom line is that I’m still undecided. After all, as a researcher, I can’t help but have more questions than answers and a curiosity about your opinions and experiences. I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please send me a message … or appropriate emoji.


(1) The Wall Street Journal (February 24, 2016). As Facebook Moves Beyond ‘Like,’ You Need to ‘Love’ and ‘Haha’ With Caution. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/as-facebook-moves-beyond-like-you-need-to-love-and-haha-with-caution-1456318800.

(2) International Science Times (July 23, 2013). Vocabularies Shrinking: Are Smartphones, Tablets, Other Internet Devices Making It Harder to Learn New Words? Retrieved from http://www.isciencetimes.com/articles/5698/20130723/vocabularies-shrinking-texting-tablets-new-words-learning.htm.

(3) The Wall Street Journal (September 27, 2013). Smile! A History of Emoticons. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304213904579093661814158946.

(4) Arkenford company website (June 1, 2016). Does Market Research Need to Learn to Speak the ‘Language of Emojis’? Retrieved from http://www.arkenford.co.uk/news/does-market-research-need-to-learn-to-speak-the-language-of-emojis.

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Six Degrees uses psycho-sensory tools and techniques to build more successful national and global brands. Brands are rooted in human perception. And our psycho-sensory approach is designed to identify deeper and richer insights from human perception and then develop brand communications that change suboptimal perceptions or reinforce the right perceptions. More than 80 percent of the information humans process is nonverbal, making it essential that brands manage the sensory signals they send out. Our people are passionate branding experts wielding powerful psycho-sensory tools to build stronger and more successful brands across the globe.

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