Whether you call them Field Studies, User Visits, Site Observations, or Anthropology 2.0, studying customer/user behavior is key to improving your user interface, and a strong suit of ours at GRD. This past year, Kate Gomoll spoke with Jared Spool to do a podcast on field studies and wrote an e-book with Ellen Story Church and Eric Bond titled “The Field Study Handbook: A Common Sense Approach for Discovering User Needs.”
Recently, a client asked me how to prepare for a field study. As I reflected on the question, I thought it would make a good blog post.
The first thing I told the client is to be prepared for any circumstances to occur on your visit. Things do not always go according to plan. If you can relax and go along with the situation at hand, you’ve cleared a big hurdle. I once went on a field study to an institutional trading company in New York, when a fight broke out between two traders. I scurried off to the kitchen in the office until the melee was over. Another time, I arrived at a site and the person who was my contact had given notice and walked out the prior day, telling no one I was coming. The customer worked with me to find some people who were available, and I readjusted the visit to still accomplish the goal.
Another note on mental preparation: don’t cram too many visits in one day. If you’ve never done a field study before, let me tell you the most important thing you can do - LISTEN. For most people, true ‘active’ listening requires a mental focus that can be draining. You have to actively listen to what the participant is saying, observe what they are doing, keep the session moving along, etc. By the end of a day of three field study interviews, I am mentally tired. So while there is some variance depending on how long your sessions are, e.g. 30 minutes versus two hours, try to stay at three or fewer sessions.
I don’t recommend going on a field study alone. There are two reasons for this. One reason is safety/liability. This is a bigger deal if you are going to someone’s house than to a company. The other reason is just having a second set of eyes. I generally record my sessions and take few notes (mainly sketches) so that my eye contact and focus is on the participant. If I have someone with me, that person can take more notes and share them with me, and we will always debrief between visits and at the end of the day. If you are a consultant, go with one contact from your client, preferably someone who is a subject matter expert and can bridge any gap in the conversation, e.g. the participant asks a detailed question that you are unable to answer. Three people are okay as well, but with any more, you will run into logistical challenges, e.g. trying to cram four people into someone’s cube, or around a kitchen table.
On the logistics of travel, I’ll do a future post on what web sites I use for travel planning, since part of the post will be a review of the site itself. But from a planning perspective, with all the problems travelers are having with airlines nowadays, I recommend always arriving the night before a visit. If you have a client who is actually doing the planning but hasn’t planned field studies before, make sure they build in time to eat And check to see whether the customer (if it is a business site not someone’s home) will have meals there or not. It is best never to assume, but you also don’t want to be rude if the customer would like to have a working lunch or take you somewhere. Lastly, regardless of whether you are doing the planning or not, print off directions and verify they are correct. There is not much worse for a field study than starting forty minutes late because you got lost.
In the bag
Having forgotten everything at least once (including my power cord for my laptop) I have created a checklist of everything I need and want for the field studies. Your need for level of detail will vary on your organizational skills.
• Laptop and cord - yes, I actually have both of those written down on my list as I have left both behind. If the visit is local, I don’t need these things, but if I am traveling, I need to bring them so I can upload the recordings off of my devices (see below).
• Pencils - always bring more than one. You may choose to use a pen; I like pencils in case I want to sketch something quickly along with my notes, and pencils are better for me for sketching. I really like the Faber-Castell graphite sketch set, which comes with a small sharpener and eraser.
• Notebook - While not a 100% visual person, I still like to use sketchbook paper rather than lined paper here. This allows me to make mind-maps when I feel like it, or take straight notes as well. Any sketch notebook will do, but the heavyweight paper is key for me.
• Digital Video Camera - The price point on these has fallen dramatically to under $1,000 for everything: camera, desktop tripod stand, extra battery. I use the JVC Everio. It has a built-in 30GB hard drive, small form factor, and good zoom for what I need. The extended battery is a security blanket for me and comes in handy. And the Platinum Plus desktop Tripod keeps things focused and allows me to focus on the person, not my tools.
• Digital Camera - I’m not a camera junkie so there are plenty of blogs that can go into details. My needs for a digital camera are that it needs to have decent zoom (so I can take a picture of a computer screen), have good battery life, and take an SD card for storage. Today, most digital cameras fit that bill, so I meet those needs, and then go for price
• Audio Recorder - Similar to the camera, I have pretty basic needs, so if I can meet those needs I can try and go for lowest cost. The Olympus works for me, just BE SURE to check that the audio recorder is compatible with your machine. I almost bought a device that was not MAC compatible but noticed in the checkout lane. My main needs here are battery life and storage size, so that I can go a full day without having to dump recordings to my Mac. Why do I bring all three recording devices? As noted above, you have to be prepared for any circumstance, and not every customer agrees to all types of recordings. While I try to know that ahead of time, people change their minds, spouses may object (if it’s a home visit), etc.
• User Information - This is hit or miss. Sometimes, I’ll have a lot of information about the field study participants ahead of time. If so, I’ll fill out as much information about them on my documents as I can so that I’m not retreading that ground during the visit. It also helps me warm up the visit, if I can discuss something about them at the outset. This is not critical and often I don’t have any information other than that the participant uses my client’s software. My point in listing here is, if you have it, review it and bring it along.
• Food and Drink - You never know if the place you are going, whether someone’s home or business, will offer you something to drink or something to eat. Bring along a water bottle and a candy bar or granola bar. You don’t want to have your stomach growling mid-interview with three hours to go in your day!
These are tactical items that are necessary for a successful field study. If I’ve missed any, or you have any tools you like to use, add them in the comments section. And take a listen to Kate’s podcast and check out the e-book. They are fantastic reference guides for this critical phase in user-centered design.