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HomeLab: Who Will Be Voted Off?

Philips's researchers have created HomeLab, a 24-hour testing facility designed like a house so the scientists can observe people interacting with prototypes in a "natural home environment." From the website:

Philips HomeLab looks and feels like a regular home with modern furniture in every room, Van Gogh prints on the walls, and even a fully stocked kitchen. While no one lives at Philips HomeLab, temporary “residents” can stay at the facility for anywhere from 24 hours to two weeks, depending on the type of research being conducted. During their residence, individuals or families will go about life as usual, while interacting with the new technologies Philips has installed in the facility...Philips researchers will carefully watch how their tenants are living with these technologies 24 hours a day through tiny cameras, microphones and two-way mirrors that are hidden unobtrusively throughout HomeLab.

This is utterly ridiculous. Locking people in a house for "24 hours to two weeks" Big Brother-style while you observe them is simply not good research. You are not going to get natural results in an artificial environment, no matter how realistic.

The first core principle of ethnography is: You go to them. They don't come to you and live in a lab for two weeks.

Now granted, they aren't trying to do ethnography per se. They want to see what happens after the "newness" factor wears off with a new technology. This is an admirable goal, but wouldn't the money for this lab have been better spent finding research subjects and installing the prototypes and observation equipment in the subjects' own homes? Only there are subjects going to feel more natural--because they are in their familiar environment, not some lab made to look like a house.

The trend these days, even in usability testing, is to do it in homes, using the subjects' computers. You get a sense of context then, and the subjects are more relaxed because they are on their own machines. This HomeLab is just adding a veneer of authenticity on top of artificiality. Don't these people watch Survivor?

Originally posted at Friday, November 11, 2005 | Comments (1) | Trackback (1)

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