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Resources: UPA 2005 Idea Markets

Stalking the User: Why is Field Research Valuable for Learning Users' Needs and Goals?


Activator: Stephanie Rosenbaum, Tec-Ed, Inc.

Usability practitioners are now finding that we can adapt the field research methods of anthropology to learn rich qualitative information about our users and design more usable products, websites, and documentation. Field usability research involves observing people in their own environments -- workplace, homes, and schools -- to learn their normal behaviors.

The Activator's Initial Questions

  • Why is Field Research so valuable for learning users' needs/goal--and how can we do it despite schedule/budget constraints?
  • What makes field research valuable?
  • How do field methods differ from traditional usability testing?
  • What are realistic budgets, schedules, trade-offs?
  • How were your field research projects successful, and what could be improved?

Summary of Results

What Makes Field Research Valuable

  • Questions you didn't think to ask are answered anyway - or at least hinted at
  • Helps resolve conflicts regarding decisions
  • Less structured protocol reduces lead time
  • Great for internal applications/tools because no set-up needed; you can observe the real situation
  • Feed-forward concepts: start with ideas of the basic concept, make visit, adjust concept, visit again

Participant' Stories about Field Research

  • Website for recipe searching. Did “lightweight” informal contextual inquiry with students living in dorms. They had only small kitchenettes, so were looking for recipes that didn’t need much cooking. Dialogue centered around their recipes and their cookbooks.
  • Pharmaceutical products. Now we talk to pharmaceutical sales representatives when they’re in the home office for training. We’d like to accompany them in their cars on sales calls to doctors’ offices. This might be OK with the reps, but management would worry about their wasting time.
  • Software for military use. With only five weeks left at the end of the design process, we couldn’t resolve a design argument because we didn’t know how users feel. We’ve scheduled a visit to a Navy base for 12 hours. Half the time will be spent in usability testing and the other half in contextual inquiry, the latter to resolve this issue.
  • Internal software applications. It’s much easier to do “field research” for internal products; you don’t need to design and script a usability test, because you can observe the real situation. Even when the software doesn’t exist yet, you can visit current users to learn their needs for the next tool.
  • Open-ended studies. Sometimes you don’t have a problem statement; rather, you want to get it from a field study. This is especially important for “cultural probes” into psychology, religion, mental attitudes. You get people to do cultural probes by making them exciting. An example is tickets illustrated from Bollywood movies and labeled with emotions; when participants felt angry, happy, etc., they filled out the appropriate ticket.
  • Online mortgage application. We discussed in-home versus in-office field studies. In-home studies tend to be more natural because the context is more than the Internet; but for financial advisors, the office setting might be the natural one. A realistic situation might be someone doing early searches on their own during the day, then the husband and wife filling out the application online together in the evening.

Participants' Tips and Hints

  • Prepping in the domain before a field study (talking with experts, developers, trainers) enables you to learn the same amount from shorter contextual inquiry sessions.
  • Do great marketing, both internally and with customers, so that people see the value and support more research.
  • Take your curious mind with you!”

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