Conducting an Effective Field Study

Performing an effective field study demands a spirit of open-ended enquiry that is omnivorous and non-judgmental. The seeker must be open to any and all data, observations, comments, and quirks, and record them assiduously. The significance of any one datum may not become clear until it is triangulated with other seemingly insignificant observations. To be honestly omnivorous, the seeker must refuse to make value judgments about what they see or hear. If, for example, a user says something that contradicts the basic premise of your product or organization, you must not reject it. Sure, it might ultimately prove to be a random and erroneous opinion, but it also might trigger the insight for your next big product.

You can always do a field study. Even when there is no money in the budget, you can still do one.

I believe that many managers refuse to allow UX designers the freedom to conduct “field studies” because the designer asks for permission to conduct “research”. Research sounds scary,expensive, time consuming, and introduces uncertainty into their inexorable progress towards deployment.

Field studies, unlike formal research, are very inexpensive, fast, and if they raise pertinent questions about the assumptions underlying an ongoing project, well then, only a fool would not want to know sooner rather than later.

You can always do a field study. Even when there is no money in the budget, you can still do one. Qualitative field studies are nothing like academic research or even simple quantitative studies. The only real challenging task is to find likely candidates.ny candidate is better than staying inside the four walls of your office listening to the echo chamber of your own opinions. The good news is that you don’t need a lot of candidates — five will do, eight is good, a dozen is excellent.

Most organizations know too much about what solution they are working on and that knowledge influences their thinking. Within the office, you continually search for conditions that will make the current solution a success. You must get into the field to see what conditions exist in reality. Just find a few likely candidates and pay them a visit.

We study users to learn what their desired end states are, what motivates them to get there, and what obstacles bar their path. The best way to do this is to observe the user as they do their work. The worst way to do this is to ask the user what they want your product to do.

The tyro imagines that they must devise a suite of really clever questions that will elicit brilliant insights from their user subjects. This is the opposite of what is needed. The interviewer has two jobs: get the subject talking and avoid influencing what they say. Preventing influence is by far the hardest part, as any word, gesture, or look will affect what the subject says. Thus, the designer’s most important maxim is the less you say in the interview, the better.

The purpose of the field study isn’t to find the answer, but rather to find the question. It should be more of a casual conversation than an interview. Only ask open-ended questions such as, “What do you like about your job?” or “What frustrates you the most about your mobile?”

The designer’s most important maxim is the less you say in the interview, the better.

With my tongue only slightly in my cheek, I say the best user interview tool is just a couple of shared beers. Your job as an interviewer is to free the subject from their own reticence, their own ideas about product design, or their corporate gripes. Never ask a yes-or-no question. Every enquiry should be an excruciatingly brief essay question. Say, “Tell me about your day.” Never explain anything. Ask, “Why?” Let silences grow until the subject fills it.

Interview subjects are human. They don’t want to be negative. They want to be helpful. Sometimes they think they know how to fix problems. They know that they are in a formal interview situation, so they tend to either be on their best behavior, saying only the most positive things they can think of, or they see it as an opportunity to unleash their pet peeves and let them run. A skilled interviewer lets the interviewee speak, wander, find their path, and expound, but by suppressing all judgment or confirmation, the subject eventually feels free to tell an honest story. Experience will teach you to judge whether you are hearing what you want to hear, or a true reflection of reality.


You might also be interested to know why I call it a “Field Study.”

There’s always good, practical stuff to read on Cooper’s blog, The Journal.

Suggested further reading: Dos and Don’ts of of Field Research