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Field Studies: The Best Tool to Discover User Needs
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
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
- 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
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'
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
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,
User Needs: Field Techniques You Can Use.
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