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A Researcher’s Guide to In-Home-Use Tests

There are a lot of methods to collect consumer feedback about certain products. While some of these methods are designed for very specific goods (e.g. car clinics), other approaches can be flexibly adapted to different requirements and products. One of the most versatile methods is the In-Home-Use Test (IHUT). It is helpful for a wide range of different products and for both qualitative and quantitative approaches. We wrote the following article to give you an overview over the possibilities and limitations of this method.

Overview over the method

Even though the method is quite versatile, the common denominator for all IHUTs is the fact, that consumers test a product in their homes as they would ordinarily use them. Such projects typically start with recruiting participants, sending the test products to their homes and then, after the product has been tested, collecting the consumer’s feedback about their experiences. While this basic structure is the same for all projects, there are a couple of things you should consider and flexibly adapt to your needs.

The first thing to consider is an adequate time frame that consumers will need to fully evaluate your product. This may range from a couple of minutes (e.g. eating a chocolate bar) to several days (e.g. repeatedly applying a body lotion to get a softer skin). Most participants in such studies will also use the test products at different times, depending on when it feels most natural in their average life: some participants will test the product right away, others will wait until its usage best fits into their daily routines. Therefore, you should always allow for a few days, regardless of the product. We’ll discuss suitable products for IHUTs in the next section. For now, we’d like to focus on what that means for data collection.

Depending on the time frame, you may consider different methods of data collection for evaluating the product experience. In the simplest way, you’d just invite all participants to an online survey after the product has been used. Such a post-survey is recommended for most projects. In addition to that, and especially for longer projects, you may send frequent polls to document the customer experience during the testing period, in order to document all stages of usage. Here, you may even consider qualitative methods, such as mobile diaries (with photos, videos) or an online community to get a deeper understanding on how these products are actually used. There are endless possibilities of documenting the usage in such projects. Just have a look at our article about qualitative online research if you want to get some ideas.

Feasible products

What kind of products are suitable for IHUTs? The only strict requirement is that these products need to come from a shelf stable category, meaning they need to be durable and mailable. Ice-cream for example is not eligible for IHUTs, as it would melt on the way to the participant. In contrast, IHUTs can involve cleaning products, household goods, small electronic household appliances, pet food and products, beauty and cosmetic products, tools, packaged food, garments and many other items.

There is a certain misconception that only those products should be tested in an IHUT that are new to the market. In fact, IHUTs can be used for all maturity levels, although the leading question might be a bit different in each of these cases. When testing a prototype, you will probably be most interested in how to optimize the product to exploit its full potential before actually launching it. For existing products, its differentiation and distinctiveness from the competition might be the important question, as well as how to align your communication with the consumers’ perception of the product. Last, but not least, researching mature products may help you discover promising product line extensions to maintain existing customer relationships when the original product starts its decline in the market.

Advantages of IHUTs

As mentioned, there are several alternatives to IHUTs, especially testing products in a dedicated test studio or projective methods in online surveys (“How would you use…”). We don’t want to compare all these approaches and rather highlight some typical advantages of IHUTs.

For many products, the effect of using it shows with a certain delay. This requires consumers to use the product over the course of several days. Think of a skin softening lotion or a training device, for example. The first impression may not hold for the whole product experience. This effect can also be reverted. Consumers may initially like the scent of a product but feel a certain fatigue if they apply it over a longer period of time. Testing products in a studio doesn’t allow you to shed light on these long-term effects of usage.

A second point is giving the products the right context of usage. Consumers may assign a certain meaning to using the products that goes beyond the mere product features. A chocolate bar may not only be delicious, it may also serve as a reward after a stressful working day. Such ascriptions can only be identified if the products are tested in the right context.

The right context is also important in our third point. Many products must fit into the domestic conditions and routines of consumers. For example, it can make a huge difference, if prepared dishes are heated with a microwave or a pan. Some consumers may also add available spices or other ingredients to the meal to adapt it to their individual taste. In general, only if products are used in the right environment, such a personalized usage can be observed.

Finding the right participants

There are a couple of things to consider when recruiting participants in such studies. Depending on the target group, online or telephone interviews are the method of choice for finding participants. Apart from screening the right target group and collecting background information about previous experiences with the product category, these interviews serve the purpose to validate the participants’ availability during the test period, especially if the usage needs to be documented in ongoing diaries or communities. In addition to that, the right address for shipping the products needs to be validated.

The recruitment process should also communicate the expectations and the incentives. In many cases, participants are allowed to keep the test product after the testing period. However, it is recommended to use additional incentives to maintain the motivation throughout the whole project and get enough participants to give feedback in the final post-survey.

Regardless of all these efforts you may still loose some of the participants during the course of the project. This is why you should do consider over-recruitment. The optimal extend of it depends on the product, the duration of the testing period, the required tasks for all participants, the possibility to send reminders and the selected incentive scheme. We will be happy to provide you with an individual assessment for your project.

Sending the products

If the product is already available in shops, respondents may be asked to buy the product themselves and hand in the receipt. In most cases, the product will have to be delivered to the participants though. Handling the shipping process right is key for the success of IHUT studies.

The first thing to consider is whether the product will fit into the mailbox of the participant or needs to be accepted in person or picked up at the post office. Also, if the study covers several countries, customs may have an impact on delivery times for some respondents in your project. An awful lot can go wrong here and affect the progress of a project. Selecting the right parcel service can make a huge difference for your project.

Another point to consider is compliance with data protection. Even though the product will most likely be sponsored by the manufacturers, they should not be provided with the participants’ addresses to ship the products directly to the testers. All personal identifiable information about research participants must be kept confidential and that has implications on how the shipments should be organized. The easiest solution is to provide us with all products, so we can individually distribute them to the research participants without revealing their identity to the end client.

Finally, the package should contain a small motivational letter with instructions on when to use the product and how to document its usage. The letter should also contain contact details for support, if respondents have any difficulties with testing the product or accessing the feedback solution.

Bottom line

As you can see, IHUTs provide us with many opportunities, but there are also some pitfalls to avoid. If you like to learn more about this method, please get in touch or visit our product page.

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About Florian Tress

Florian is working as a Marketing Manager at Norstat. Feel free to drop him a line at florian.tress@norstatgroup.com.

View all Posts by Florian Tress

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