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    - Case Study of Headphones


A UX case study of headphones for college students.


UX Researcher


Collaboration, Empathy, Presentation |

UX Research


Survey, interviews

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We decided to focus on headphones including earbud headphones, over-ear headphones, on-ear headphones, Bluetooth headphones, noise-canceling headphones, and any other variation of these listening devices.



For this project, we wanted to focus on why people choose the headphones they use and how its usage and existence affect them and the people around them.


Explore and define key value points from our primary stakeholders.


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  • users

  • activities

  • features

  • type

  • related technology.

Although these were only our initial assumptions, it helped to develop a varying point of views in order to guide the creation of our interview questions. Ultimately, the mind map helped determine which elements would be of relevance as well as identifying out of the ordinary observations.

Data Collection

From the mindmap,

  • 9 open-ended questions to ask people who were seen using headphones 

    • abstract questions such as “Walk me through your daily interactions with your headphones” 

    • memory evoking questions such as “When did you last use your headphones and for how long?”


Our objective was to begin by first priming the user to recall specific instances and experiences.

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Research Methodology 


We interviewed 15 people ranging from undergraduate college students (ages 18-21) and young working professionals (ages 24-30) to middle-aged workers (ages 40-50).

We organized the interviews in pairs such that one person could be asking the questions and the other would taking notes of the interactions and responses of the user. This is because we wanted to create a comfortable and authentic conversation so that the interviewee feels as comfortable and honest as possible.  

Building rapport


We introduced and ensured confidentiality in our data collection. Although headphones are a seemingly neutral product, we wanted to make sure that we want to give our primary stakeholders had a sense of trust and comfort. We explained what we were doing and reinforced the face that there were “no wrong answers”.

Guided tour (master-apprentice model)

We asked our stakeholders to teach us how they use lighters in completing different tasks as if they were the masters and we were learning from them. This allowed us to gain insight into their thinking and process.


We were interested in how people...

  • used headphones

  • stored headphones

  • interacted with headphones

After the interviews were conducted, we created an excel sheet to store the responses of the participants. The excel sheet allowed us to easily document our data and later refer back to it when looking for trends, tradeoffs, and interesting observations.

Results & Trends

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We extracted qualitative data such as

  • type of headphones

  • purpose

  • reasons for usage

  • desired features and qualities,

and quantitative data such as

  • the frequency

  • duration of usage.


Among undergraduates

50% of users owned over the ear headphones and 70% owned in-ear headphones or earbuds. Roughly half of the college students will use over the ear headphones but a majority prefer to use in-ear earbuds when we consider those who have multiple pairs of headphones.


Of those who owned earbuds, over half of the users owned specifically, Apple-branded earbuds. There were two main contributions to the prevalence:

  1. brand​​

  2. accessibility 

    • Obtained their earbuds when purchasing an iPhone​



  • 80% of users using headphones daily

  • Use whenever there is an opportunity to do so

    • in-between classes

    • studying

    • during leisure time

  • To block out exterior noises and avoid bothering others

  • 60% of users valued: 

    • portability

    • price value

    • sound quality 


Since college students use their headphones with higher frequency, they become more reliant on them and are likely to lose them. Thus, they need something that is easily transportable, affordable and sounds great because headphones have become so integrated into their daily routines.

Among young working professionals


100% of users chose earbuds rather than over the ear headphones because earbuds are portable and can accommodate their busy, active schedules. This reveals that there is a greater emphasis on practicality rather than the fancy features one could get with bulkier headphones.



  • Use headphones almost every day

  • Use their headphones for specific situations such as at the gym or during their commute, differing from undergraduates who use headphones non-stop throughout the day.

  • Are not any overarching similarities among the group aside from their preference for earbuds due to their portability.

Among middle-aged workers

While 50% of the middle-aged workers interviewed owned over the ear headphones, all of them owned earbuds. 



  • The frequency of use dropped dramatically from the prior two groups

  • Use their headphones every couple of days

  • Do not have a daily dependency on their headphones.

  • Isolation is the main purpose of their use and comfort as their most valued quality of headphones. 

Among all demographic groups



  • Frequency of use decreases among older users.

  • a significant amount of people used headphones in order to isolate themselves

  • a considerable amount owned Apple earbuds regardless of demographics


Social Dynamics

We examine two components:

  1. social isolation with the use of headphones as an antisocial device

  2. brand recognition as a form of social status and clout


Nearly 80% of all users interviewed described in varying ways how they use headphones to isolate themselves such as tuning out their environment or signaling their preoccupation. It appears that there is a mutual understanding between user and observer embedded in social norms and that headphones would be the device that facilitates it.


Branding appears to have a relevant effect on the social dynamics behind headphones. Our data revealed that 53% of all users owned Apple earbuds, and 66% of all earbuds used were Apple-branded.

This overrepresentation of Apple earbuds is attributed to its branding and social status associated with it. Of those who owned Apple earbuds, half reported the effects of social influence on their usage. The brand name of Apple allowed these white earbuds to become iconic trademarks that carried social status. This is due to their association with luxury goods such as the iPhone that these earbuds come with. They became so prevalent that 25% of Apple earbud owners in our sample said that they use them in order to fit the norm.


These case studies provide insight into the social aspects of headphones: their ability to simultaneously allow users to isolate themselves while also fitting in.


Wire Entanglement and Wireless Connectivity


Wired Earbuds 

Approximately 33% of the interviewees

  • become tangled when not in use

    • Store their earbuds by throwing them into their backpack or pocket.

    • Easier to bunch the wire together and cram the earbuds into their bag than it is to neatly wrap the wire together


It was interesting to see how these users would store their earbuds when temporarily idle. During their interviews, one individual rested the wire on her neck and another used his laptop screen as a mount for his earbuds. People adapt to their environment and tackle the problem of tangled earbuds.


Wireless Earbuds 

The main problem that 100% of wireless earbuds owners:

  • Connectivity to other devices 

  • Wireless headphones are easier to lose than wired ones


One user had two sets of headphones - one for outdoors (non-wireless) and one for indoors (wireless).

Each pair of headphones adopted a set of tradeoffs:


The wired pair wouldn’t be lost as easily and has higher ease of use but could get tangled easily.


The wireless pair eliminates that problem of tangled wires at the cost of a larger gulf of execution where the user has to know how to connect through Bluetooth.



Typically, users would need a few different pairs of headphones because:

  1. Frequently they are lost

    • in-ear models get lost substantially more than over the head headphones

      • some users reporting up to 8 lost pairs of earbuds.

  2. Location and Portability

    • 20% of the users owned 2 pairs of headphones and used them in fairly particular places.

    • Large, over the ear headphones, restricts portability and forces users to leave them at home

    • Portable earbuds or wireless earbuds that would supplement their listening devices for on the go situations (i.e. work, school, gym). 




There seem to be clusters of headphones with high quality sounding headphones being less portable. On the other hand, there is also a cluster surrounding low-quality sound headphones with portability. There are a couple of outliers in the design space that attempt to achieve both portability and high sound quality. For example, the headphones branded  “Beats Earbuds” is capable of delivering mid-level quality sounds as well as being portable.


An example of other outside factors is the popularity of the Apple Earbuds in that Apple products are more expensive and have a brand name, so their overall quality is most likely higher than cheaper generic earbuds despite having equal portability ratings.


We defined functionality as anything that the headphone provides beyond their intended purpose of serving as a listening device. This includes but is not limited to: noise cancellation, volume controls, and wireless technology.


Our initial finding is that headphones with more functionality will generally cost more. Also, over the ear headphones were found to be generally more expensive than earbuds; most users described paying over $100 for a majority of their headphones while others enjoyed the cheapness of their earbuds.


However, there are some significant outliers that are worthy of explanation. Although low-tier and mid-tier headphones have equally low relative functionality, the mid-tier pair will be more expensive because of the quality consumers are getting with them.


There is no one perfect pair of headphones that combines all the desired features and functions.


Though, if we were to design the ideal pair of headphones, its characteristics would maximize the desired qualities mentioned in our design spaces.

  1. Have great sound quality without sacrificing portability 

  2. Basic functions to cater to a consumer's need

    • Volume control​

    • Noise cancellation

  3. Detachable wire ​

    • Convenient to have a wire or not ​

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