Conducting user research in the field where we can directly observe, engage, and immerse ourselves in the users natural environment can bring a lot of benefit to the design process. To make the best out of field research sessions, there are a couple of things we need to carefully consider. Here are some tips and lessons learned from our own experiences that can help you avoid common problems. This article covers the first (and most important part), planning.

field prep

1. Prioritize key research questions

Identify what you want to find out from the field user research, prioritize to top 3 key research questions. This will guide you in developing the discussion guide, time allotment for different topics, and help differentiate between worthy findings to dig deeper versus noises.

2. Understand stakeholders’ goals and point of views

Identify key stakeholders — this could be the project sponsor, management, or team who will be using the research result. Understand what they need to get out of the research, their point of views and assumptions, and priorities. This will also help you prioritize key research questions, and to later determine the implications ‘so what’ from your findings.

3. Immerse in the topic, do background reading

You should know the topic that you are researching very well. Do background research prior to the field — get company’s internal data, review related past studies, do desk research, or talk to friends who know the topic well. This is especially important when you are working on a research area that are new or unfamiliar to you. Get familiarized to the terminologies, jargons, ecosystem, how things work, current issues and trends.

4. Discussion guide covering list of topics

Your discussion guide will likely evolve or change over the sessions as you learn, so you can discover more and go deeper. When preparing discussion guide, it is better to list out topics (and subtopics) to cover, instead of a strict list of questions, to give flexibility during the conversations. Include observation and photo / video shot list as well. Print it on a A4 paper, fold it into A5. It makes it easier to hold while maintaining eye-contact with the respondents, and to glance over in case you need to check if you have covered all the topics. Note that in the field there may not be proper table for you to put your stuff on, so keeping your items easier to hold will be handy.

5. Ensure all admin stuff are covered

This sounds boring, but it is really important. Make sure you have all the paperwork required, such as consent form, non-disclosure agreement (if you are going to reveal any confidential information), incentive and receipt, and permission letter if required (this is usually necessary when you are researching sensitive topics, researching with minors, or dealing with respondent’s highly confidential data).

6. Prepare tools and equipment

Pack all supporting tools and equipment in one bag so you can carry them around easily during field — notebook and pen (use multi-colored pen for note taking, more on this on Part 2 of this article), printed discussion guide, probing materials / stimuli, paperwork, audio recorder, camera, video camera, tripod, extra batteries, chargers, extra memory cards, and external hard drive to store field photos and videos.

7. Monitor recruitment and locations

Whether you are recruiting by yourself or you are using a recruiter to arrange for the field sessions, keep a close monitor on the recruitment progress and profiles to make sure you are getting quality respondents. Check on locations of the sessions to make sure there is enough time for travel. Drop pins on the map for each location to make it easier to share with other team members and to plan for the day. Check each interview location to make sure it is conducive — good lighting, low noise level, and sufficient space for your field team.

8. Do Pilot Study

Try out the session before going to the field, to familiarize yourself with the questions to ask, how to ask it, and time allocation for each topic. It is best to do pilot with a real respondent. This can be your first respondent, give time for editing and iteration, before moving to the following sessions.

9. Manage stakeholders / observers

It is good to have stakholders to observe the sessions, so they can have a sense directly from the field. They also sometimes have different background and may look at things differently, thus offer different perspectives and point of views. However, if they do not have much background in field user research, it is important to manage their expectations. Prepare a guideline for observers and brief them before the field. Inform them that the discussion guide may evolve over the sessions. Inform them when they can ask questions and how to ask them (more on this in Part 2 of this article). Get them to write note of their observations and involve them in the debrief sessions.

Do you have any other tips to add?