Outstanding in the Field

Author: Ron Schroeder

Date: May 17, 2016

Field studies can reveal a lot, with a little effort

Picture this: you're attending a 5k run and one of the milestone events prior to race day is packet pick-up. You need to check in, grab your tchotchkes and head into the health expo to get your bib number, chip and t-shirt. You open the expo main door and immediately get stuck in a long line that isn't moving!

Most folks would immediately say to themselves, “They need more volunteers.” In many cases that might be the problem, but, on closer consideration, the bigger problem might be how the check-in layout was organized, or the fact that business needs (e.g., organizers arrange the expo so the participants have to pass every vendor booth before getting their t-shirt ) were placed ahead of user needs (e.g., organizers allow users to voluntarily visit the vendor booths).

As a user experience company, we face this challenge all the time: getting to the root of the real problem. And the way we do this is through research. This particular problem calls for is a field study.

Wait…don’t leave yet!

The phrase “field study” may bring to mind scientists in lab coats or anthropologists living among primates, but field studies don’t have to be the formal, academic method that you may have read about in your favorite blog or forum. In the end, the core principle is to be more engaged with your customers and understand what makes them tick. I want to help break down the perceived barriers to discovering the needs and behaviors of your customers by providing an example of a recent study I conducted.

If you know me personally, you know I have a hard time rejecting an invitation to help volunteer at a running event. Because of that character trait (or flaw), each year I help organize a local marathon. (I won’t mention which one, so that I don’t negatively impact their search rankings with a back-link from this article). Recently, they held their big event. We had changed location for the packet pick-up and finish line, and knowing that field studies don’t have to be too structured, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to conduct one relating to these changes.

Prior to the event, I jotted down a few hypotheses I had in mind and then I observed and occasionally talked to participants. It was great. After the event, I had my conclusions. We found solutions to a couple of immediate issues, like moving the information booth away from the door to help prevent congestion for the people that did not need additional information. After observing that runners were having a hard time finding key locations based solely on online maps (such as shuttle pick-up and drop-off), we added sticky notes to the display maps at the event to help guide them. We reported these items back to the race director, and discussed them in our post-race reflection meeting.

That's an example of a basic field study using an indirect method. Many types of research methods exist, and I doubt anyone is going to say this was a statistically sound study, but sometimes you don’t have the means to conduct a formal study, and I knew in this situation that watching and understanding my customers' behavior was the only way to make the event better.

I don’t want to oversimplify the more formal research studies that user research organizations provide, including mine, but I want to highlight how simple it can be to shift your perspective. I've participated in various research methods over the years and it can certainly be intimidating to get started. There are some really great resources and organizations available to help get you closer to collecting information about your customers' behavior. So next time you're getting ready to start a project that has a touchpoint with your customer, grab the designer, grab the programmer, grab the marketing team and then get out and observe actual customers in their natural environment.

Here are a few helpful tips to ensure you have an effective study:

Create a hypothesis

If you go into an observation without a goal or an assumption that you want to validate, you will end up with 100 other insights but you'll forget to focus on the one reason you wanted to do the study in the first place. In my race event situation, I wasn’t sure if a single entrance and exit door would cause a bottleneck during peak traffic hours or if the placement of the water after the awards was the right order.

Take photographs

I’m the type of person that can get so consumed in gathering all the information, I have to review a video recording or see a visual reference to help gather my thoughts. If I can take pictures of the overall experience and the actual participants or key interactions, I find it easier to recall a key insight much quicker than trying to retell the story purely from memory.

Ask questions

This is where you'll start to hit some challenges. Asking the right questions is an art form that can take years to master. If you can gather some initial customer behavior without priming them for an interview, go for it. If you do want to venture down the question path, this article, from usability research firm Nielsen Norman Group, does a good job of summarizing the following interviewing principles:

  1. Don’t ask questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no.”
  2. Don’t ask leading questions
  3. Don’t use jargon
  4. Don’t draw attention to specific issues.

Summarize Your Findings

Don’t forget to report your findings by highlighting how and where you conducted your study; what observations you discovered through the process; and the recommendations you gathered from the study.

Remember, this is one form of gathering insights — and it’s oversimplified. Be cautious about making critical decisions from your observation. I’m sure you'll feel more connected to your customers and will have another set of hypothesis you'll want to validate. It takes a lot of courage to get out of your comfort zone, so make sure to praise your colleagues that do get out and observe their customers’ behavior.