Field Research: Not a Case Study

I’ll be honest, this started as a standard post about methods and case studies, but it turned out differently. If you came for a huge case study, you are in the wrong place, but I still hope you find something interesting here. These are just bits and pieces, little personal stories about how I got into field research. 

Field Research

What do we do when we are conducting field research? We try to observe and analyze users in the context of using the product in their own environment – or a substitute process which we want to change. The main goal is observing their behavior, and people tend to forget it is also a really good way to gain empathy. Just to be in the same room with the user and see their daily struggles motivates me to improve something they can use.

Cases where I would not use field research: none. In an ideal world, I would always look for users in their natural habitat to be able to see how they behave on their own turf. Why? Observation is key, and there is no better quality information available than to see how users behave on their own.

Because of this, researchers can have strange desires. For example, when I worked on a streaming application, I really wanted to go to different homes at night to see how they pick the movies and series they would like to watch. Of course, this was really hard to achieve (to be honest, I didn’t do it in the end).

Tips and tricks for field research

It is also worth remembering that, based on the observer effect, users will always change their behavior when they are observed. But it’s still easier to be relaxed when you are doing your day-to-day activities in your usual environment. Basically, we should always make time for field work before jumping into the usability lab to create user tests.

The best way to gain information is to simply observe users while they perform their daily tasks. This is called shadowing. You just stand behind them watching what they do. You can also ask some questions why they actually doing the things they do. This can be a little bit overwhelming for the user, so field work should always start with proper introduction and a little conversation to get the day going.

Our research team also had their fair share of field work. Sometimes we can visit exquisite places, sometimes it’s just an ordinary office building. Field work is always interesting no matter the place. For example, we went to golf courses, call centers, various marketing teams, universities, airports and even simple parking meters. We always learned something interesting about the problem at hand.

Story Time

When I was younger, I always enjoyed sitting on the main square in my home town and just watching how people moved around the square. It was about finding patterns about their movement and routes they would take. It may sound funny, but I also tried synchronize them and guess what they were thinking. Of course this doesn’t count as proper field research, but it sheds a bit of light what kind of mindset an observer can have.

field research

The first proper(ish) field work came in my first year at the university. This was actually one of our very first assignments, and I can see why. We had to go to a bigger city park and observe how people behaved in groups, based on a structured guide. We worked in pairs and took a lot of notes. At the end of the day, we discussed our notes and we actually felt that we had learned a lot. Of course, in hindsight it seems to be we didn’t learn anything important but at that point we felt really good about ourselves. Some basic problems also emerged that day and it turned out that these are pretty common during field research.

The first is that although this is one of the closest basic research methods to the users, it is still hard to understand them. We have to find ways to get closer to their thought process without distracting them. The other thing is related to the previously mentioned observer effect. Even somebody who is just taking notes in a park can modify someone’s behavior. You can imagine the effect sometimes when you sit right next to them.

Surprising Effect

This level of consciousness can really affect the user. Once I sat right next to an administrator to see his daily tasks. All went well in the beginning. He showed me basic daily processes he had to do. I asked him to do his work as he would on an average day to see any issues we could work with to improve the process. It turned out he had to do the same process a hundred times, and this was basically all he did some days. After completing the process a few times, he looked at me and said, “I just realized my job really sucks. Maybe I should do something else.”

The interface wasn’t that good either, but at the end of the day, this was not a UI issue. This was an interesting encounter from the perspective of the method, but the most important lesson for me is that we always have responsibility when we do user research. For example, research can be a hidden marketing effort to generate leads in cases, which greatly devalues our work sometimes. We just have to remember that our work brings value by sticking to some basic research ethics.

Do you want to read more about research techniques? Here you can order our book, a comprehensive guide on designing Digital Products.

You can also read about the UX research methods we use in a previous blog post.