The benefits of virtual in-home usage testing

Editor’s note: Krystal Rudyk is the marketing manager at itracks. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared under the title “Unlocking Authentic Insights: The Case for Virtual In-Home Usage Testing in Market Research.” 

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 staunchest 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 more eco-friendly 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 to better align the product with customers’ needs and wants.  

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

A tale of burnt waffles: Finding the real story

We’ve had the privilege of working with several clients who have used our platform to conduct online IHUTs. One of those clients was testing out a waffle iron and 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. 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, from start to finish, only took an hour, so they could do it first thing Sunday morning if that was the best time for participants. 

Reduced observer effect

Authenticity is key to effective marketing 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 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

Virtual IHUTs find insights that may not have been seen if conducting in-person marketing research. This is especially true for: 

Secondary uses: What’s an exercise bike used for? Exercising. 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.

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.