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.
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.
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.
Even a short field study, such as two or three half-day visits, can yield tremendous value. From these we can learn:
Field studies give the advantage of delivering the team information they just can't get in any other way:
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've 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.
Are you interested in learning more about how to conduct field visits with your users? At the Know Your Users Roadshow, Kate Gomoll and Ellen Story will teach you how to plan and conduct field studies to get everything you need about your user’s needs in their full-day seminar, Discovering User Needs: Field Techniques You Can Use.