Identifying New Use Cases for Smart Home Devices with In-Home Ethnography

The smart home device market is expanding. Since the early days of the first Amazon Alexa and Google Home devices, we've seen widespread commitment to making household tech that gets smarter and more integrated every year from kitchen appliances to smart plugs to cleaning tools to security systems.

Users want their smart home devices to seamlessly connect to one another, working as one convenient, connected system. Ultimately, this translates to brand loyalty in the purchases they make.

Getting your products and experiences right is vital to ensure your brand sticks from the start. 

A smart home device maker asked us:

What are typical use cases for our devices in people’s homes? Does our prototype fit those needs?

Our client wanted to understand how people use both physical space and technology in their homes to learn how their new device fits people’s lives. Unlike other experiences, it was important to conduct this research in real users' homes to truly understand how this would fit in their space.

To do this, they needed a hardware research study to:

  • Gather detailed measurements to inform engineering specs
  • Identify device use cases and placement options and validate or uncover potential prototype issues 
  • Explore participants’ use of technology, their communication dynamics, and communication desires in various rooms of the house

We answered:

Our hardware research team designed a study to meet both the qualitative insights requirements and the detailed quantitative measures requested by the client team.

The first challenge to solve was how to gather both measurement data and ethnographic details while in participants’ homes and with limited time.

We set up a study with:

  • 90 minute, in-home ethnographic sessions
  • 48 participants (mixed age, gender, household income, home size, and own vs. rent status)
  • A mix of 1:1 interviews and measurement gathering of 4 rooms in the home

We conducted interviews across four metropolitan areas:

  • Chicago - 12 sessions
  • Dallas - 12 sessions
  • Los Angeles - 12 sessions
  • New York City - 12 sessions

To make the measurement process efficient and best use our in-home time, we consulted an architect to understand which elements and measurements in homes are standard and not. The research team also took advantage of a floor planning app integrated with a laser measuring tool to gather the needed measurements quickly.

Both of these steps allowed for more one-on-one interview time with our participants. 

AnswerLab researchers met with participants in their homes, along with a videographer, to capture interviews and environmental surroundings. In addition, researchers brought a 3D printed prototype for participants to place around their homes.

“I was going to put [device] on my coffee table, but since I have to keep it plugged in that’s the choice...” - participant, NYC


The research identified the room in which participants most expected to use the device and uncovered opportunities to improve device function and experience in that space.

Accomplishing home measurements, the physical prototype placement activity, and 1:1 interviews during the in-home sessions meant the research team was able to deliver insights and recommendations about:

  • Participants’ technology ecosystems
  • Current communication and technology preferences
  • Prevalent device use cases
  • Device form factor
  • Space and durability needs
  • Opportunities for device improvement based on participants concerns and their physical environments

Project deliverables also included a detailed report of the study protocols and floor plans with measurements detailing the furniture placement, amount of available space, and access and proximity to power outlets.

The product team learned what technology participants had in their homes, how they used it, and why they placed it where they did. They improved the form factor and engineering specs to meet the needs of varying household sizes and use cases.

Read more about our hardware UX research practice

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