The Evidence-Based UX Design Guide

Field Research

What you can learn

A lot of this guide looks at technology-enabled methods for gathering evidence but sometimes—no matter how many analytics tools you have—you need to go to the source and get some raw data. This means actually observing people and their behaviour.

This is particularly true if you are looking to design an online service that interacts with people's daily lives. If you're designing an app which helps people make healthier decisions when out shopping in supermarkets, you'd better go out and get a good understanding of how people actually shop first.

You can survey and ask people all you want but if you're to truly understand what they actually do (rather than what they say they do), you should consider accompanying them about their day. Or at least for the tasks you’re interested in. I’m calling this field research although you might find this kind of thing being called ethnography.

How to do it

The first challenge is going to be finding appropriate people to study. If you have existing customers you might be able to reach out to them and ask if they're willing to participate in research. If not you can always try putting out adverts in places like Gumtree or Craig's List. You should pay people for their time. If the people you need are just too specific or hard to find, then it might be worth using a recruitment company.

How many people to recruit is a question of how complex the product you’re looking to research is (the more there is to observe, the more people you’ll want) and how much budget you have. You need to build enough sample variety into your sessions to start seeing overlap with insights – 10-12 people is a decent target but just one or two is still better than none.

The next thing to be clear on is what you want to watch people doing. Is it a very specific task (like going around a supermarket)? Or is it a full process, from writing a shopping list to unpacking the contents of their shop into their kitchen. Once you've defined what you're interested in, don't try to structure it too much. It's your job to just observe and record what happens.

You then need to go our into the field and watch what they do. Make sure to have their permission to record the events. You might want to try and film the whole thing or just snap clips of key moments. Of course you can have a notepad with you to jot down questions or incidents you want to dig into. If it’s a task that they do a lot then asking questions as they go and getting them to think aloud is a good way to understand why they’re doing things. If you want to see them use a new product then try not to interrupt and influence their learning process but ask any questions at the end.

After the task is over you need to take a bit of time to record what happened. It’s worth setting up a document template with things like person description, stories, quotes, insights, highs, and lows. Fill this in for each participant, ideally with another person you researched with, so you can check you agree on what you saw.

Watch out for

The big thing to watch out for in field studies is being sure not to insert yourself into the research too much. Don't ask the participants lots of questions as you go along or help them too much if they're struggling with something. You could end up biasing the results and missing out on opportunities to learn how they currently tackle problems.

If you do have lots of questions you want to dig into further then save them until the end of the observed period and ask them in a more formal interview then. Good questions to ask are 'why' they do things, especially if it isn't obvious from simply observing.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good in this kind of evidence-gathering. If the task goes a bit off-course or the participant ends up doing something you didn’t expect it can still be a chance to learn. By its nature this kind of work can be messy but you can still spot very real insights.

You should also try to be in ‘observe’ mode during the research and note down everything without bias. Then take the time to reflect and analyse later, rather than jumping to immediate conclusions.

Thanks to Paddy Long for his help putting this post together.

Example tools (and cost)

The tools for thins kind of research are your classic 'reporter' tools of notebook and pen, camera, dictaphone, and practical clothing. A smartphone can contain all of thee tools but it's still a manual kind of job.

How long does it take?

This is going to completely vary depending on who and what you're looking to observe but budget a few weeks to run the whole thing.

How often should you use it?





Last updated on 7 May 2017

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Here's another method

User Feedback

How to gather and assess irregular customer feedback from email and phone calls.

Learn more | Last updated on 9 March 2017

View all the methods in the guide

Note: the examples in this guide are for website design, but most of the content is also applicable for native apps and software.