Posted by AnswerLab Research on Jul 14, 2021

Technology products aren’t exclusively digital. Fitness trackers, smartwatches, and VR devices, for example, combine hardware and software. Some of our team’s most distinct projects have included hardware. Getting hardware UX right is critical if you want your device to be successful.

If you're on a hardware product team and aren't sure where to start, read on as our hardware team shares the essentials.

Design fails: the struggle is real

A few years ago, Silicon Valley tech had a big idea: capitalize on California’s juice-loving culture and provide a homemade juicing experience without the hassle of peeling and chopping.

Juicero was born, and it delivered bags of pre-chopped fruit in bags to your home with a press of an app. In practice, the fruit wasn’t so much chopped as pulverized, as in baby food. And while the consistency wasn’t necessarily inspiring, it was at least convenient – you could squeeze it out of the bag with your hands into a Nutribullet or processor of choice.

Which is why users were mystified at Juicero’s main piece of hardware: a $400 machine that exerted 400 tons of pressure to squeeze those bags into a single glass of juice.

Critics ranked it #1 on the global list of stupid products, right above goldfish walkers. The company quickly went out of business. 

What could have helped prevent this incredible design fail? Why wasn’t it caught before launch?

The research that would have allowed the new juicer to function in everyday life with everyday bodies may not have been done – or may not have been done early enough to impact the final product.  

In other words, hardware UX research may not have happened early enough or even at all.

In this article, we cover:

  • What is hardware UX research and why do you need it for your product 
  • Who are the hardware stakeholders in your organization and what are their goals
  • What types of questions can hardware UX research help answer for you and your team

Hardware UX Research: the early answer  

Hardware UX research is a way to ensure a positive end-user experience for the people who interact with your product. This type of user experience research is vital to the success of any product entering the market because it can indicate what a hardware product needs in order to be adopted into people’s lives.

Unlike digital experiences that can be corrected easily after launch, late-stage changes to hardware – typically re-tooling – can cost millions. In addition to monetary costs, product launches without early (or any) hardware user testing pose another, arguably more damaging, risk: loss of trust with users. These are costly outcomes many companies can’t absorb.

Because the success of hardware is based on understanding the physical – and ultimately personal – relationship between the user and the product, and because hardware gets more difficult to improve in the later stages of product development, continuous user feedback and design iterations done early and often are crucial. It’s also important to recognize the domino effect one change can have on other design elements. This contributes to the need for an iterative test process, pre-tooling, when control is still possible. 

When performed correctly, hardware UX research is:

  • Best begun early – from concept
  • Iterative
  • Adaptable to different product development phases
  • Human-centered

Don’t worry though. Your existing digital UX research toolbox can be closely mapped to hardware UX research, especially when it comes to usability testing. 

Getting physical. And human-centered

Hardware UX research is based on understanding the relationship between user and object. This relationship is based on the human physical body, body measurements, and user satisfaction with the experience relative to a host of multi-sensory factors. 

Compared to digital UX research, hardware UX research needs even more focus on the user's physical body and environment. People often experience hardware not only relative to themselves but also as extensions of themselves. 

Human-centered hardware user research test methodologies include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Ethnography where the product fits into the user’s life and environment 
  • Anthropometric measurements – the scientific study/collection of body measurements and proportions
  • Human factors design/engineering – the ergonomic and aesthetic elements that influence product design
  • Usability – the effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction with which users achieve specified goals in particular environments

For example, the AnswerLab UX research team conducted studies to help a client understand how a prototype smart home device would fit into peoples' lives. Read the full case study, here.

Early and often

The most effective hardware UX research program includes iterative testing throughout product development with adjustments made after each test. Testing early – beginning as early as pre-concept – is always better for robust results because changes can be made with relative ease earlier in the development process.

Reactionary research is rarely strong as it tends to put out fires rather than work strategically with fresh information moving towards a goal. 

Digital UX Research methods can map to Hardware UX Research, but not always

While hardware UX research and digital UX research each test usability, functionality, and user experience, the differences are worth noting. 

Human factors and anthropometric measurement testing aren’t part of digital research. Instead of “what does this task flow look like," these methods seek to understand where in physical space a button should be located, what size and shape to fit in a hand, and why.

And when it comes to hardware products, the stakes are higher. It’s more costly to create a new version of your hardware if there are mistakes. Once the prototype is tooled, you’re locked into all but small aesthetic changes.

The goal of hardware UX research is to understand the user and their needs and bringing that front and center when designing and developing the physical product.

The Hardware UX Research experience

The building blocks of the hardware UX research process include understanding stakeholders and assembling teams, assessing your hardware product’s research needs and requirements, and delivering quick and iterative insights.

Identify your stakeholders

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of including all potential product stakeholders in the hardware research process. Multiple perspectives lead to a greater understanding of how a product responds to user needs. Typical stakeholders may include:

  • Product Managers: These individuals are charged with bringing a product to market on time and ensuring that the product represents a viable business opportunity and supports the company's overall strategy and goals. Product Managers tend to have the final say on research direction and what gets supported.
  • Engineers: Engineers collaborate with design and are responsible for developing, manufacturing, and testing hardware. They often supervise hardware manufacturing, production.
  • Industrial Designers: This group works closely with Engineering to design hardware products. They are focused on the physical appearance, functionality, and manufacturability of a product.
  • Marketers: Marketing is tasked with strategically segueing a product in the marketplace. This includes positioning the product relative to competing products, placement in distribution channels, and promotional plans that spread the word about the product. 
  • Package Designers: Package Designers ensure that the product can be labeled, recognized, carried, shipped, and unpacked in alignment with its purpose, brand, safety, and intended experience. 
  • Program Managers: Program Managers coordinate projects and deliver them in alignment with company goals.

Setting up for success: the foundational phase

In the foundational or exploratory phase, you're setting the trajectory of your hardware product. Before you consider making something, exploratory research helps you see what's out there, assess the problem space, and start to learn why someone would need a new or improved device.

Use this phase of your product planning to conduct research that identifies user pain points and design opportunities before manufacturing. UX research conducted at this stage will help you:

  • Understand the current landscape
  • Discover people’s unmet needs
  • Refine and prioritize features
  • Gather feedback on your product concepts

As your concept develops, iterative testing will ensure you're building the right thing, the right way. How do you conduct early research on a device you haven't built yet? Hardware UX research can easily be done with low-investment physical models or prototypes of the final product. Foam core or 3D printed models can be used for as long as possible.

Setting your new product up for success in the world 

There are still expensive mistakes to be made post-tooling. Once you have a manufactured device, user experience research helps you identify and address issues that might harm a user's experience with your product (and trust with your brand).

UX research conducted at this stage will help you:

  • Anticipate and mitigate any usability challenges
  • Create an effective out of the box experience (OOBE)
  • Position your product the right way, to the right audiences
  • Inform future product iterations

Moving forward

Successful hardware UX research brings the physical needs of human users to the forefront of research and testing. It emphasizes iterative, well-thought-out methodologies and processes which allow products to be developed with as much insight and refinement as possible before prototyping. This is vital, for it helps to ensure that, once released to the market, there is no need to retool or reversion.

We hope this introduction to hardware UX research helps you take your next steps.

If you need a team of hardware UX experts to put your device to the test, contact the AnswerLab team today.


Written by

AnswerLab Research

The AnswerLab research team collaborates on articles to bring you the latest UX trends and best practices.

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