Disclaimer: This project was mostly self-directed. We did share our findings with Bose UX hardware team but we were not sponsored by them.
Kelly Cao, Al Jose, Caleb Tan
January - March 2020
Cognitive Walkthrough, Heuristic Evaluation, Qualitative Research, Affinity Mapping
About the sleepbuds
The Bose Sleepbuds are an audio-based sleep aid. By masking environmental noise and providing users with an array of soothing ambient sound options it helps prime the user for deep and interrupted sleep.
What makes them special?
The Sleepbuds are a unique product that targets sleep and one's quality of sleep through a physical product. Unlike other solutions that exclusively provide calming sounds, the Bose Sleepbuds also considers what goes on when sleeping.
They sound great, but...
Looking at customer reviews online, the Bose Sleepbuds were not well received. Many of the reviews point to usability issues. We decided to do a usability study of our own and learn where the areas of opportunity were for this unique product.
Perusing customer reviews, cognitive walkthroughs, and heuristic evaluations we identified problems in three critical steps when using the product. 1) in the onboarding, 2) in the Bluetooth pairing, and 3) in the charging interaction. This helped us to conceive our research questions.

Interviews & Surveys

Since participants were unfamiliar with the device, interviews were chosen to allow us to probe further on initial reactions, actions, or questions that surfaced. Surveys were also incredibly useful in allowing us to quantify reactions across participants.

Being that we lacked the resources for an actual sleep study, and had only one pair of the Sleepbuds, scenarios were employed to help situate the user in an actual use case. A script was used to maintain interviewer consistency between participants.

Participant Profile

Given the uniqueness of this product, we sought users who had never used them as this was the most common experience. They also had to live in environments that were less than ideal for uninterrupted sleep.

University students were a clear fit as most still live communally and likely have not used this product before. Seven participants from the University of Washington were recruited for the usability study.

Video recordings of the sessions were also captured for reference at a later time. All participant information was kept strictly anonymous. With limited time to go through all our scenarios, we decided to pre-download the Bose app for our participants.


As we had a short amount of time to code a lot of data, affinity mapping was done to identify emergent themes.

We were provided a severity scale as a reference by the Bose team. Adapting that severity scale, we were able to create a scale of our own based on the frequency and inconvenience observed in our testing.

Insufficient affordance on the case lead to confusion on how to even open the case. This early obstacle fosterd negative emotion for later steps.

A graphical summary of the quantitative and quantitative points for the second finding (unorthodox methods to connect buds).

Due to different mental models, there was a variety of actions taken to pair the device. A lack of notice about successful pairing contributed to the challenges and an inability to identify Left and Right side also further impacted the experience.

A graphical summary of the quantitative and quantitative points for the third finding (charging and battery).

Charging and battery indicators lacked clarity for participant. The instruction manuals did not consistently provide the necessary information to help participants recover from errors.

Reflecting on my experience
The first is having pre-downloaded the Bose Sleep app for participants. Despite seeing the variance in mental models when it came to Bluetooth pairing, we might have seen this difference more frequently if the application was not pre-downloaded.
Secondly, we should have focused on one or two key interactions. Considering the length of a session and participants’ attention span, we were not able to go into as much depth with our participants trying to cover more interactions in a short time.
Lastly, if granted the right resources, I would like to have participants take home the Sleepbuds with them and note down impressions in a longitudinal diary study to see if there were any improvements in sleep quality.
What did I learn?
When assessing the usability of products like the Bose Sleepbuds where there is a digital and physical component to usability, focus on either the digital or physical independently. This was learned early on and came in useful as we noticed several challenges when participants interacted with the app. Having this knowledge, we decided to focus on the physical product.
Other work
UX Designer
UX Designer