Kate Gomoll is a recognized expert in the area of Field Research and Usability Testing. UIE's Ashley McKee recently had the opportunity to talk with Kate about how she and her team at Gomoll Research & Design conduct field studies. Here is what Kate had to say about her experiences

UIE: Many of our clients say they stay away from conducting field research projects because they are too expensive and time-consuming to implement. Why should designers invest the time and resources in field studies?

Kate Gomoll: Nothing replaces the power of direct observation. Designers can gain so much information from watching people in their actual work environment and capturing a user's unarticulated needs. The work we conduct takes place in the participant's environment — such as home, work, stores, banks, and hospitals. Our findings are based on realities, not preconceptions. As a result, design teams can get much closer to their customers. Users will “show and tell” them things they would incorrectly consider unimportant in a focus group, interview, or usability test.

Also, in our experience, what people say rarely matches what they do. People don't remember the steps of a process, especially if it's something they do all the time. They may tell you something is easy, but when you actually observe users doing that task in a field study, you can see all the problems and inefficiencies they didn't recall or couldn't articulate.

Performing a field study for every project that comes along in an organization is not always possible, or even practical. What factors should design teams consider when deciding which projects would benefit most from field research?

If you're designing a new product, it's definitely a good idea to do some field research. You may think you can't study people because your product idea is so new and innovative, but it really pays to observe and interview people who are doing things the old-fashioned way before you forge ahead and change things. You may discover that you're solving the wrong problem, or that there are parts of the old way of doing things that work pretty well — so you should hang on to them.

Also, if you're doing a major re-design of an existing product, it's probably a good idea to freshen up your understanding of the users. Chances are, they have some frustrations with the current product, and you may have a stale understanding of how they're actually using it.

Of course, it's also helpful if:

Do you ever recommend that design teams conduct focus groups and interviews instead of field studies?

We recommend that design teams find ways to get to know their users and their users’ goals and tasks. If you have very little time and practically no budget, you're probably not going to perform a large-scale field study. You might opt instead for phone interviews, web-based field studies, and some interactive focus groups.

But, even in those cases, we recommend that design teams try to find a way to visit at least a few representative users who are local. Getting to know some users and seeing their environment and context-of-use helps to put your other data into perspective, and it provides the opportunity to capture "unspoken" needs.

What members of the team should be involved in the field studies?

It's important to have key stakeholders involved in the planning to make sure everybody agrees on the locations to visit and the participant mix. It's also a good idea to ask people with different backgrounds to attend the visits as observers. These people don't have to attend every visit, but exposing a broader range of people to field research really helps to get buy-in for the results. Ideally, you will have one or two researchers who conduct all the visits, so that there is continuity in the results. You can cycle observers in and out of the team, and give them special tasks, such as photography, video capture, audio capture, or observing specific parts of a process.

How should design teams go about recruiting users?

Before we determine the user segments and the number of participants, we usually ask the clients to assemble a group of key stakeholders. This group typically includes people from the development team, marketing, engineering, usability/user interface, and domain experts. We make sure that this group has input and buys into the definition of a user segment, as well as the criteria for recruiting.

We ask stakeholders three main questions:

Before we conduct any of the field visits, we gain agreement from all of the key stakeholders about the sites and people we visit, so that when the data rolls in, nobody is telling us "you visited the wrong people."

You’ll want to work with your sales and marketing departments to help identify clients (or non-clients) who fit the profile that you are interested in. If your company has its own user group, that might be a good resource for finding locations that fit the profile and are willing to work with you. Another excellent option is beta sites, which come with built-in willingness to participate.

Here’s a list of possible sources to find target users:

How much time do you recommend teams spend with each user?

A typical visit with a participant lasts 1.5 – 2 hours. We spend the first part of our visit asking users to prioritize their most important and frequent tasks. We then observe them completing their most high-priority tasks. As we watch the user, we capture the steps, constraints, and tools needed to accomplish key tasks and any social interactions that take place. We also note any process inefficiencies or opportunities for improvement.

It's a good idea to ask participants whether you can follow up with them later to ask any questions you didn't have time to cover during the session or to do more observations, if necessary. Also, you can arrange for a longer-term "diary" study where participants will collect data for you over time and send you the results.

Do you have any best practices for sharing the results of field research with team members and stakeholders?

We've found that it's a good idea to send incremental visit reports as the study progresses to keep stakeholders apprised of the research progress.

Then, when the study is complete, we develop sets of "one-pagers" that can be used in many ways. We report the data using posters, videos, photo collages, storyboards, user profiles, personas, and prioritized lists. We make sure to understand how different groups will use the data, and we provide it to them in a format that will make it easy for them to grasp the key points.

We make the results available in PowerPoint presentations, on intranet sites, in written reports, or as hallway displays - whatever approach will capture the attention of the audience.

After observing users in the field, how do you identify areas for improving the design?

We recommend that teams document visits as they go along, in incremental reports. Then, when it’s time to analyze the data, we have an organized starting point.

Next, we comb through the reports looking for patterns in the data. We create spreadsheets or "tick sheets" for tracking the patterns. We place the participants along one axis of the tick sheet, and we place the behaviors, needs, issues, or problems we're tracking along the other axis. Then, we simply mark which users displayed which behavior, need, issue, or problem. Soon, we start to see patterns in the data. The patterns help us to understand what our results mean and how we can use them to make improvements.

We also create “before-and-after” views of processes. For example, we often document our process observations in storyboards, showing the steps of the process and highlighting current inefficiencies, frustrations, or problem areas. Then, we create a new storyboard showing how we could perform the same process after we make improvements. Seeing both “what is” and “what could be” side-by-side is a compelling way to illustrate improvements. We can also construct before-and-after views using timelines, flowcharts, or scenarios.

Thanks, Kate!

Whether you're new to the benefits of performing field research, or a seasoned researcher looking to brush up on your research techniques, you'll definitely want to get your copy of the UIE Fundamental Report: The Field Study Handbook -- A Common Sense Approach for Discovering User needs. In this report, Kate Gomoll, Ellen Story Church, and Eric Bond detail the ins and outs of the entire field study process.

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