Focus Questions for Site Visits

Jared Spool

February 22nd, 2007

When we coach clients to prepare for site visits, we suggest they put together a list of focus questions, the questions they’ll keep top-of-mind as they observe people’s context. In Putting Context into Context, I talk about how you can break down context into eight categories: Goals, Process, Inputs & Outputs, Experience, Constraints, Physical Environment, Tools, and Relationships.

The following is a list of sample questions we created for a project exploring new development tools:


  • What is the user trying to accomplish?
  • How will the user know when they are done? What will be different?
  • How does the user describe their goals?
  • How do the user’s actions fit into the objectives of the organization?
  • Who established the goals for the user? Were they self anointed or were they assigned by someone else?
  • Are the user’s immediate goals part of a larger scope? (For example, the new point-of-sale application is one piece of delivering an entire new line of business.)


  • What are the steps the user will follow?
  • Who defined the steps?
  • How prepared is the user for each step? (Do they have it all laid out or does it seem to be ad-hoc?)
  • How does information flow from one step to the next?
  • What are the various roles (such as creator, contributor, editor, or approver) that are involved?
  • How long does the process take?
  • What artifacts (such as design documents, emails, or whiteboard drawings) are used?
  • How do the various team members communicate with each other?
  • What other tools are used during the process?

Inputs & Outputs:

  • What materials and information will the user need to successfully use the interface?
  • From whom will they get that information?
  • What do they do when the information isn’t complete?
  • What will they need from the interface to continue with their overarching goals?
  • To whom do they give those results?
  • What happens after they’ve turned them over? (Does the user move on to something else or do they have more interactions?)


  • What similar things has the user done in their past?
  • Is this something that repeats itself or is the use a first-time occasion?
  • What journals or magazines do they read?
  • What kind of “organizational memory” helps the user avoid mistakes of the past?
  • How has the organization survived without this design in the past?
  • What competitors systems have users taken advantage of?
  • How will the user learn how to use the tool?
  • What training has the user received?
  • What conferences has the user attended?


  • What physical, temporal, or financial constraints are likely to affect the user’s work?
  • What ideals are subverted by reality as the work progresses?
  • What constraints can the user predict in advance? What can’t be predicted?

Physical Environment:

  • How much room does the user have to work?
  • Do they have a place to store the documentation?
  • What materials are on their desk?
  • What access do they have to necessary information (such as user manuals)?
  • What have they taped to their monitor?

Tools In Use:

  • What hardware and software does the user currently use?
  • Do they participate in online forums?


  • What are the interactions between the primary user and other people affected by the tool?
  • Does the user interact with other people who use the tool?

Of course, you’d want to change these questions to fit your project’s needs. After every two or three visits, we come back and revisit the questions, often updating them to include new areas we’d like to learn more in future visits. (We call these meetings focus redefinition sessions and we schedule them when we’re putting together our visit schedule.)

Bonus: Once we have our questions, we play a little game. Before we visit a study participant, we gather all the information we collected through the recruitment process about them and guess what the answers to the questions will be. Then, when on the visit, we compare our guesses to what we discover during the visit.

By playing this game, anything different from our guesses really jumps out at us. Interestingly, anything that matches our guesses also jumps out at us. It helps us see how real people are different from our expectations (a good thing — it justifies the site visits) and where we’re good at predicting what is happening in the real world.

One Response to “Focus Questions for Site Visits”

  1. Learning How to Focus on Field Studies » UIE Brain Sparks Says:

    […] Next weekSoon, I’ll post a templateframework we use to develop our focus questions. Here is the framework. […]

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