Unlocking Authentic Insights: The Case for Virtual In-Home Usage Testing in Market Research

Unlocking Authentic Insights: The Case for Virtual In-Home Usage Testing in Market Research

Krystal Rudyk
Marketing Manager, itracks

What if we told you that the best way to observe how someone really uses something in their home is to never actually enter their home? While this may seem a little counterintuitive, there’s a convincing case to be made for transitioning away from in-person research altogether when it comes to in-home usage testing (IHUT). Even the most staunch advocates of in-person face-to-face market research are gradually shifting away from sending researchers to participants' homes, and toward the more convenient (and yes, more effective) world of virtual IHUT.  

There are several benefits to conducting market research online in general – it’s cheaper, faster, more geographically accessible, and it helps save the planet, to name a few. For some, these reasons are enough to make the switch away from in-person research. When it comes to IHUT, though, there are more compelling reasons to embrace the virtual approach. 

Think of why IHUT exists in the first place – to see how people use products in their homes – not in a market research facility while facing a one-way mirror, or in the middle of a public place. We want to see how people use our products in their real, everyday environment, so that we can figure out how well it fits into their lives, and what adjustments might need to be made in order to better align the product with customers’ needs and wants.  

Now think of a typical in-person IHUT. Is that really reflective of how someone would use a product on a normal day? 

Keeping it Real – A Story of Burnt Waffles 

Here at itracks, we’ve had the privilege of working with several clients who have used our platform to conduct online IHUTs, either in Realtime or asynchronously using Board. One of those clients was testing out a waffle iron, and actually came to us after having already conducted some in-person IHUTs. The problem, they found, was that the in-person sessions were... odd. Typically the participant was the only one home, with the rest of the family at work or school. There was a fair bit of travel involved for the researcher, so they were generally scheduled throughout the work week. And the houses were all very clean – something the researchers didn’t even notice until after they were able to compare them to the virtual IHUTs conducted in the itracks platform. Basically, the researcher would show up and then observe a solitary adult in a nice clean kitchen calmly make some waffles. Predictably, the waffle iron worked just fine for this purpose. 

The virtual IHUTs told a different story. Participants’ kitchens were messy. Their kids and spouses were home. Instead of focusing on whether their waffles were burning, they were trying to make sure their 4-year-old didn’t dump all the waffle batter on the floor or burn themselves. Product characteristics that didn’t seem important before –whether it was small enough to fit on a cluttered countertop, whether the timer could be heard over screaming kids, whether the cord stuck out in a way that made it likely to be pulled onto the floor, whether you could let a toddler “help” by flipping the iron over without worrying about them burning their little hands – became a lot more salient. They finally got the real story.  

So why the big difference? Why didn’t the in-person IHUTs capture the real, hectic experience of making waffles? 

  • Flexible Timing: Lack of travel meant greater flexibility in scheduling for the virtual IHUTs. The research team simply asked the participants to suggest a time and day they might normally be making waffles and then sent them a calendar invite with a link to join. Researchers didn’t need to worry about whether they were in the participants’ city or neighborhood that day, or how much time it would take them to drive there. The whole session, start to finish, only took an hour, so they could do it first thing Sunday morning if that’s when worked for the participants. 
  • Reduced Observer Effect: Authenticity is key to effective market research, but this can be tough in-person. People act more naturally when they aren’t thinking about being observed. It’s hard to forget that a stranger is standing in your kitchen watching you cook breakfast no matter how many times that person says “pretend I’m not here.” It’s a lot easier to forget that you’ve propped your laptop or phone up on a shelf with the camera pointed at the kitchen island. And if you’re not thinking about the researcher who’s there specifically to watch you make waffles, then you’re also thinking less about the waffles themselves, and whether or not they’re burning, which is much more akin to the real-life usage you’re trying to capture in market research. 
  • Less Intrusion: On a similar note, people’s homes tend to look a little bit different (I.e., cleaner) when a guest visits than they do when they’re home alone. Conversely, people are less likely to frantically clean up because they have a videoconference later that day. Having the home in its natural state is key to a successful IHUT. Pretty much all waffle irons can fit on an empty countertop. They don’t all fit nicely on a counter still covered in last night’s ice cream bowls and board game pieces.  

These benefits aren’t limited to the testing of small kitchen appliances – they apply to any product you would be testing in a home. If you don’t have people acting naturally, using the item at a time when they would normally use it, with their home existing in its natural state, then why conduct in-home testing at all?  

Going Beyond the Predictable 

Market researchers have used itracks software to test a large variety of products, many of which have had key aspects of their use become apparent through virtual IHUTs that may not have been seen otherwise. This is especially true for: 

  • Secondary Uses: What’s an exercise bike used for? Exercising. And that's likely all you’ll see if you schedule an appointment to come over to someone’s house to observe them using their exercise bike. If, however, you recruit a pool of participants who happen to own a particular brand of exercise bike, ask them to hop onto a quick video call, and then ask them to show you their exercise bike in the home, you might see that it’s also used as a clothes rack or doorstop. And while those aren't its key functions, the seamlessness with which it fits into the home while serving those purposes are still important to the overall customer experience, and worth learning about.  
  • Unpredictable Use-cases: Not all products are used at predictable times. If you ask someone when they use a Band-Aid, they will likely say something like “when I have a small cut or scrape,” but most people don’t know when the next time they accidentally cut or scrape themselves will be. Conducting IHUTs using online platforms allows researchers to capture those unpredictable circumstances, especially if they use an asynchronous platform like itracks Board.  

A Board is an online discussion forum, kind of like Facebook or Reddit, but for qualitative research so it's secure and has specialized research features and reporting. Participants and moderators don’t all need to be online at the same time, they can login and respond at their leisure within a specified time frame, not an exact time. So, for example, you could set up a Board for a week and ask people to record themselves putting a Band-Aid on if they happen to accidentally cut or scrape themselves that week. Then you’re getting the authentic experience of using the product when it’s meant to be used – when there’s blood, and someone is maybe a bit upset, and probably has other things going on around them – instead of in a controlled situation. 

The market research landscape is evolving, and it's imperative that research methods evolve with it. Virtual in-home usage testing presents a compelling opportunity for cost-effective, geographically diverse, and, most importantly, authentic research outcome. So go ahead, plan your next in-home-usage study, and make it the most insightful one yet – and do it all from the comfort of your home or office. Let us know if you need any help!