Designing Human-Centered Hearables
Leveraging User Research to Envision the Future of Personal Audio
CLIENT: QUALCOMM HEARABLES PRODUCT TEAM
ROLE: USER RESEARCH, CONCEPT DESIGN, DESIGN STRATEGY
TEAM: ANNE KONERTZ
TIME: 3 MONTHS
In recent years, wireless smart headphones or “hearables” have become a popular product category. Startups and tech giants alike are packing high-tech features into their smart headphones, from in-ear health monitoring to real-time curated audio. But what features truly matter to users? We were asked by the Qualcomm hearables product team to discover user insights to guide the business and engineering efforts for Qualcomm’s future low power, bluetooth audio chips.
Starting with a Sprint
We kicked-off our UX work with a three day design sprint. Product, engineering, and business leads collaborated to learn about the priorities, questions, and challenges facing the hearables project. First, we shared the user and product research we had completed the week before. Synthesizing the data together helped the team feel more invested in the results of the user research and helped us remain focused on user needs throughout the sprint. Inspired by the initial user research findings, we a led the team through a series of interactive design thinking exercises from sketching to experience prototyping. We mapped our new concepts and their technical requirements to a larger, big picture vision of what Qualcomm’s role in the product ecosystem could be.
The biggest accomplishment of the design sprint was establishing a shared understanding of this evolving product space, identifying the key strategic areas where Qualcomm can provide unique value, and creating a cohesive action plan. Since we were also working in a distributed, international team, bringing us together in a shared creative space set the tone for a productive and highly collaborative working relationship throughout the project.
The sprint helped us to understood the business and engineering challenges facing the team and the types of experiences and features Qualcomm was well-positioned to enable. Building off of the sprint, we focused our in-depth user research on three key areas: hearing assistance when socializing in noisy environments, fitness tracking and listening to music while exercising, and active noise cancellation for traveling. While we explored several research questions for each use case area, one key question throughout the study revolved around audio curation: what do people want to hear or not want to hear when engaging in different activities in various contexts?
For each use case area, I collaborated closely with another researcher to:
- plan and design our research approach
- interview stakeholders and technical experts to structure our study to address their needs
- conduct background research
- define our research questions
- identify, recruit, and interview 8-12 users for 1:1 semi-structured interviews (30 total)
- observe user behavior in the field
- document, analyze, and synthesize our findings into relevant insights and design questions
- prepare and present our research findings to the larger team in a compelling way
Translating Findings into Design Insights
Next, we transformed our research insights into design questions. We brainstormed and sketched alternate solutions to our design questions and translated our best ideas into storyboards detailing the ideal user experience for hearables in different scenarios.
We rapidly prototyped the key concepts from our storyboards and quickly modified our designs based on what we learned from concept testing with users. It required ingenuity to prototype and test experiences for hardware and algorithms that don't exist yet. This stage was ultimately instrumental in challenging our assumptions and allowing us to pivot to improve our designs.
Using our refined storyboards, we collaborated closely with engineering and product management to identify what UX concepts were both technically implementable and added value to Qualcomm's product offering. We also worked with audio and acoustic engineering teams to refine and write up invention disclosure forms to patent our novel ideas.
Our research findings and design concepts directly contributed to developing new use cases, creating engineering requirements, and defining the product vision for Qualcomm's hearables chip. The research uncovered actionable insights into audio curation, fitness tracking, and battery optimization that influenced the product roadmap. We also discovered new design opportunities including ways of leveraging the device ecosystem to improve system performance and usability and how to employ context awareness to enhance the overall user experience.