SmartHome User Research

For the SmartHome project, we’ve taken a step back to better understand the problem space and come at solutions based on research and evidence. As a team we spent last week interviewing people in their homes, with questions on a theme of freedom and independence. We choose early teens (12-15yrs) and post-retirement folks as a demographic that might have useful insights into this topic.

As a software engineer this has been an interesting process. There’s a temptation to jump into any new project with both feet and start hacking on code; starting with simple successes and working iteratively to add features and meet requirements. And we’ve done some of that in order to get familiar with what we expect will be our prototyping platforms - the raspberry pi and ESP8266. But the more we looked at the problem the more it became clear that we weren’t yet sure what technical questions the project would ask, let alone how to solve them. In the meantime, our team was trying to figure out a better vision for the smart home that would align with Mozilla’s values and potential solutions in a broad and confusing product space. None of us were in our comfort zone, so we made a determination to put roles aside and roll up sleeves and muck in. We’ve posted craigslist ads, we’ve had Skype calls, house visits, coffee shop rendezvous; interviewed, transcribed and now begun to process input from 15 different people.

It turns out that a curious mind, a knack for spotting patterns, analysing outcomes for the motivations and circumstances that produced them - these are the stock-in-trade of any software engineer - and they are skills that work just as well in user research and exploratory product definition as they do in software development. And perhaps more important than that, before we are engineers, we are people. We have families, jobs, aspirations, frustrations and concerns. We were young and hope to grow old. Talking to people this last week has been a great reminder that it is people that solve problems, not code.