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Field Studies: The Best Tool to Discover User Needs

by Jared M. Spool
on March 13, 2007

The most valuable asset of a successful design team is the information they have
about their users. When teams have the right information, the job of designing
a powerful, intuitive, easy-to-use interface becomes tremendously easier. When
they don’t, every little design decision becomes a struggle.

While techniques, such as focus groups, usability tests, and surveys, can
lead to valuable insights, the most powerful tool in the toolbox is the ‘field
study’. Field studies get the team immersed in the environment of their users
and allow them to observe critical details for which there is no other way
of discovering.

Field Studies in Action

Over the years, we’ve conducted many field studies for our clients. In each
study, we’ve learned amazing things about how people behave, giving us incredible
insight into how we should design interfaces for use.

  • We’ve watched people shopping in malls, giving us insight into how they
    manage shopping lists and purchase items on impulse. From this we’ve learned
    a lot to guide successful e-commerce designs.
  • We’ve spent weeks sitting alongside system administrators, watching how
    they interact with software documentation as they solve problems and maintain
    systems. We garnered new perspectives on the roles of printed and online
    documentation, helping us understand the unique problems that each medium
    favors.
  • We’ve followed paperwork through large manufacturing facilities, seeing
    who touched it and what they needed from it. From this, we learned the subtleties
    of the manufacturing information and how the seemingly minor actions of one
    person in the factory (such as leaving an ‘unimportant’ field blank) can
    have dramatic affects on the efficiency of other people later on. Seeing
    how people interacted with each other using the paperwork gave us a greater
    understanding of the intricacies of implementing enterprise-wide information
    systems.

While field studies are one of the most expensive techniques to implement,
the value they return is tremendous. We’ve never come back from a study thinking
we’ve wasted our time and resources. A quality 6-day study can produce enough
information to keep a team busy for months.

The Power of Field Studies

Even a short field study, such as two or three half-day visits, can yield
tremendous value. From these we can learn:

  • Terminology and processes: What do users do and how do
    they talk about it? While users can describe a process or share terms in
    an interview format, watching them work points out subtleties that they are
    unaware of.
  • Context: What are the external forces that will impact
    the design? Do the user’s requirements change when they are rushed or up
    against a deadline? People have trouble describing the context of their work,
    however it’s easy for outsiders to observe.
  • Similarities and differences: Visiting multiple sites
    can allow the team to collect a rich amount of information about the commonalities
    that appear across environments, along with the variations that will impact
    design decisions (such as providing switches, options, and optional features).
    Just compiling a list of similarities and differences observed in 4 separate
    visits can really help a team focus on the critical functionality and requirements
    for a project.

Field studies give the advantage of delivering the team information they just
can’t get in any other way:

  • Users can’t describe activities that they don’t focus on. When you have
    an audience that is experienced at what they do, they often don’t pay attention
    to the small steps involved. An outside observer will see these "unspeakables" and
    can document them in ways that the participants can’t. It’s these details
    that will make the user experience feel natural and well considered.
  • Innovation happens when the designers get direct exposure to the users’
    entire context and its subtle variations and accidental similarities. Some
    of the most innovative designs in the last 5 years are the result of paying
    attention to the little details in the user’s context.
  • ‘Intuitive’ interfaces are easier to build when designers have a deep understanding
    of the users’ context, terminology, and processes. It’s the combination of
    these three elements that make an interface seem intuitive, because the familiarity
    to users is already built in.

The biggest downside to field studies is the cost to the organization. Scheduling
the visits, taking team members out of the office for several days, and finishing
the analysis can have a huge impact on a project’s resources.

The most successful organizations look beyond the current project, realizing
that the value from the information learned will feed into future projects
for years to come. Using this perspective, they amortize the costs across many
development projects and it becomes an extremely cost effective method for
gathering critical information.

When we look at teams that are struggling to produce quality designs, almost
always it is the result of spending time guessing and estimating user needs
instead of working with actual data. Field studies can eliminate ‘opinion wars’
by replacing the strongly-held hunches of the team members with real information
that describes what is happening. This is probably the biggest benefit that
teams see.

Some organizations go so far as to ensure that every design team member visits
at least one user every 4 months. This constant exposure to the users’ context
changes the way teams interact, making the focus less on validation of information
and more on creativity and solving users’ problems.

The results from a successful set of visits will feed directly into persona
development, information architecture, workflows, use cases, and requirements
for the project. Teams that conduct visits find that they use these results
consistently through many different projects.

When we look at how the most usable designs were developed, we see one
commonality across all the teams involved: they all had the critical information
they needed to create these incredible results. Field studies are the most
effective technique we’ve found at getting that critical information.

Learn more about field research techniques with Steve Portigal’s podcast Immersive Field Research Techniques

Share your thoughts with us

Has your design team conducted field studies? How have
they worked for you? I’d love to hear what you’re doing. Leave us a
comment at the UIE Brain Sparks Blog.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company and helps clients understand how to solve their design problems. You can follow Jared on Twitter at @jmspool.