Sensory Panellists…alien beings or skilled people?
Sensory Panellists… alien beings or skilled people?
This week whilst having an often occurring conversation about the incredible insight sensory testing can deliver, and describing the process, the thought struck me that sensory panellists must come across as sounding like some form of alien beings.
‘Selected’, ‘trained’, ‘working alone in partitioned sensory booths’: what on earth for and how? How do I get to be one, and, would I want to be one?
Be reassured, sensory panellists are just regular people like you and I. They would have to be or Sensory Dimensions would find it extremely difficult to have over 300 of them employed and ready for action. They are, however, quite special people because they have higher than average ability to detect tastes at low concentrations; to describe individual flavours and textures; and to sort samples that differ in tastes or textures, according to the intensity of those tastes and textures. We check these abilities out before we recruit using a set of screening tests and about 20% of people meet our selection criteria.
We then train our recruits to be even better. At SD, we have panels that have received a lot of training on one particular type of product: potatoes; pet-food; skin creams and cosmetics; and e-cigarettes. These people become very expert at working in their category: they can detect and describe all the aromas, flavours and textures and measure the strength of these attributes consistently from one day to another.
We also have general panels who work on a huge range of products: one week chocolate, the next yogurt, the next tomatoes… the list is endless. Their skill is translating all the learnings from lots of products to your sample set and your project.
They work hard these panellists. It’s not easy spending two hours debating if the sensation that you describe as ‘slippery’ is the same as what your colleague is labelling ‘slimy’. The aim is consensus and for the same word to be associated with the same perception across the group of 12. A well-defined and understood descriptive language is essential. If not, the panellists interpret the language in different ways; rate the samples differently and generate non-discriminating data. Further lack of definition, means that you, the client, will not understand the output. External references as well as words are used to make it really clear what sensation every word describes.
But at the end of the day the panellists go home, go shopping, and do the school run, just like the rest of us. Even if they may ponder the taste of their chocolate a little more in the evenings!