Contextual Research & Ethnography – or Field Research!

13 June 2014

As User Experience experts we love our methods of engaging with users at the time of testing. We are also good at coordinating stakeholders and users on collaborative design workshops. However, I know that we often overlook the power of simple field research, opting for different methods of initial engagement. It is mostly the case on projects where budgets and time are limited.

In my experience of being a researcher, there is no better option of learning about user needs and expectations than an engagement in field research, or simply: observation of users doing stuff in the way they do it, in their work spaces.  There are multiple reasons for which I think this works the best.

field research

Why field research?

First of all, users (participants) that we can interact within their own surroundings are more open and relaxed than when consulted in the lab. They can drink their own coffee; they can have a picture of Ryan Gosling above their screen (comes from the actual research archive). They also can say things they would not say with their superiors observing them from the next room.

Secondly, field research provides us with an opportunity to understand the role of environment in user’s activities. For example – I previously held a research session with an Insurance company. When I went to visit them in their workplace, I never expected to see a team sitting in near darkness, unable to use a mouse (as the system did not support it well) with special monitor adhesive foil around their computer screens which shielded highly confidential information from the eyes of others in the office.

If we had not personally experienced their working world through their eyes, we would never have provided them with a system that truly matched their needs – and most importantly – in sync with their working environment.

In terms of extensive field research, we have just delivered a digital project for Menzies Distribution (a complete overhaul of their press delivery management platform, as described in a previous post. We have travelled across the country to interview owners of small grocery stores and workers of large supermarkets. We have learned and experienced a lot by observing and understanding their daily work routines and processes. The research has provided us with a coherent image of all of the successes and struggles that our client audiences were facing on daily basis.

We also conducted multiple telephone interviews with call centre staff in order to unravel any frustrations that our client’s service was potentially providing. The research was immensely helpful in improving the quality of recommendations for our developers and designers. Moreover – the group of stakeholders to whom we presented the findings enjoyed the session immensely. Everyone loves a happy client!

Field research is not only incredibly useful but fun; all you need is a notepad, a sound recorder (mobile phone will do!) and a smile. Yes, don’t go there if you feel miserable. Be careful to not become too friendly, though, since this will bias results as well. People tend to tell things they think others would like, so try to stay professional! Observe everything, take photographs, engage with people, listen to their stories and give them a time to talk even if in a way that’s unrelated to the project. You might discover something surprising. Then come back, make yourself a coffee and listen for hours until your ears turn red.

I could probably write about the miraculous joys of writing up all of the findings – but that’s another post! It is a hefty task, but the benefits far outweigh the amount of manual labour involved.

The best part of the entire process is presenting the findings to our clients.  During which we are able to provide them with quotes from direct users. There is nothing more convincing than this, and if videos are provided, too (sometimes it’s possible to record them) – then it might turn into a true UX appreciation session.

With all the good weather outside (if there is any) – don’t sit in the office, test your interviewing skills!




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