What did we learn on our field trip Observing users

We were on an unfamiliar territory a few weeks back. A team of two, we spent an entire day in a rice field observing farmers and farm workers in their context.

From being served the problem statement and requirements to being in a place to observe users in their context, was indeed a very eye opening experience.

I always loved being out in the open and soaking up to the new inputs and messages that come your way. Somehow the years of looking to break away from the artificial boundaries of the 4 walls was showing up. Hence we jumped into this opportunity to observe people at farms and processing units. We drove down 150 miles to a great setting of farms and farmers near Chennai, India

We took upon ourselves to try and understand ways to maximise farm output and ensure that the cultivated food reach the consumer. After appraising ourselves of the overall process from cultivation to retail we decided to start our exploration at the farm.

Every year in India 40% of cultivated food is wasted before it reaches the consumer.

We met a handful number of farmers, both with large land holdings and small time farmers. Here is what we learnt being with them.

Learn their language

While at the users context and when interacting with them, they are at their best and in their world. This is exactly what you need when talking to users. But the flip side is that they are going to talk the language of their day to day life. You will find them use specific terms and terminologies. Like in this case, the farmers had short names for measuring yield in their farm lands. They also had convention among their community on how to measure yields per acre of land. The faster you learn these terms the better it would serve you during the next stage of your exploration

Stay Longer & Dig deeper

One of the biggest advantages an outsider brings to a setting, is to ask fundamental & basic questions. They also have a knack of looking at things that a person doing it day in and out misses. Hence it shouldn’t come to you as a surprise that your users do not recognise them missing out on some of the basic blind spots. Your users might not have recognised these challenges and it might be difficult to get them to list it out for you. The technique that worked best for us is to abandon our guidelines and engage in longer & deeper conversations. After we had spent a good time on understanding the scene we started to get a lot of insights and reasoning for the commonly exhibited behaviours from the farmers. We can’t stress the importance of dedicating good quality time and being patient with users and interacting with them enthusiastically.

Learn to recognise Beliefs and Conventions

Every community and every profession has heuristics and best practices. Sometimes they become so ingrained in their system that they fail to validate or invalidate their beliefs. As an outsider having the ability to recognise these will give you a good understanding of why a community operates the way they operate. With the farmers we clearly were able to recognise a pattern of them not being too worried about the accidental spills that happen while harvesting. This seems to be a very clear pattern across the farmers whom we met.

Do not judge and be comfortable with that

As an outsider we bring in the advantage of questioning the fundamentals. But we also need to recognise the collective wisdom that has been built for decades. As a group we recognise this and are reminding ourselves to be not judging, but soak as much as possible before arriving at any recommendations.

Understand the whole ecosystem

The ecosystem for farming like any other field is involved and complex. Recognising the various players and stages will be very useful in understanding the behaviours. This is also why not judging early and learning to be comfortable with it is a very critical element for such a design assignment