NUX Leeds: How field research can transform projects in amazing ways.
This week at NUX Leeds, UX Director at Lion & Mason, Andy Curry shared with us UX enthusiasts why he thinks we should all be doing more field research, or essentially ‘Getting out of the office!’
This type of research is often overlooked because of the amount of time and cost required to organise research for such a small sample. But, Andy shared the power of field research, and the potential it has to transform a project, to help us understand why he loves it so much. So without further ado, Andy walked us through the 6 key reasons why we should all love it too.
1) Epiphany moments
That moment when the penny drops. It’s something that most researchers will be familiar with, but Andy shared how this moment is particularly common when in the field. Seeing the user carry out tasks in their natural setting can uncover little intricacies in the way they do things and can massively impact the design, or even project goals.
Andy referred to an example when researching for a large pharmaceutical company who had big plans to become the ‘Amazon’ of pharmaceuticals. Observing people use their ordering system across Europe uncovered that ordering pharmaceuticals is not a luxury ecommerce experience, but a time poor task. Users don’t spend time browsing or exploring offers. They have a printed A-Z list which they order from directly. For this reason, creating something that was simple, structured by A-Z, and quite the opposite of the ‘Amazon-esque’ platform they had imagined, was critical.
At SimpleUsability we’ve had some similar epiphany moments with our field research. When observing call centre staff take customers through a form, we saw how many quick sheets they used to translate the person’s answers to data the system would understand. This was something that hadn’t been anticipated and helped us to design a better system.
2) Unfiltered view
Andy introduced this idea with an analogy. He used the experiment ‘Shrödinger’s cat’ where a cat was put in a box with a radioactive isotope which had a 50:50 chance of decaying. Andy’s point here was that only when you open the box do you know whether the isotope has decayed, and the cat survived. So by opening the box and observing the outcome, you change it.
Andy likened this to some research methods. Biases are inherent, as by the very act of observing behaviour, particularly in unnatural setting you are likely to change it. But with field research, observing behaviour on the user’s own turf, and without any interference is likely to create a more authentic and unfiltered view.
In order to understand the user and best serve their needs, this requires getting up close and personal with the user – sometimes as Andy pointed out, ‘too close’! This is something that field research promotes, as you’re required to embrace the user’s natural surroundings whether this be in the cab of a lorry or store room of a shop.
Andy recalled a project he experienced where the aim was to offer basic computer skills to children who were deemed ‘disaffected’ due to lack of motivation and disinterest in learning. Visiting these children quickly highlighted that they were certainly not disinterested, but in most cases computer literate, and desperate to learn more. These kids had been tarnished with a damaging persona due to lack of understanding and lack of empathy. Only by heading into the field, and understanding the user, was Andy able to battle against these personas and build the empathy and engagement necessary to address their actual needs.
We’ve had similar experiences in field research. For example, after spending time with financial advisors, we were able to empathise with their isolation of working from home or in the car in their day to day roles, then communicate this to the rest of the project team.
4) Getting out the office
We shouldn’t be ashamed to admit that field research is a great opportunity to get out the office! We get comfortable in the office, when actually the world is an exciting and fascinating place to explore and observe. Seeing how others live with your own eyes is an incredible way to understand needs. And on top of that, travel is fun! Andy even shared how it can lead to weird and wonderful hobbies – for him, the excitement of visiting awful hotel rooms.
5) Change management
We’ve all been in a situation where the project we set out to complete ends up being a completely different project with a different set of objectives. Often this kind of change can be hard to manage, and it can be challenging to keep ‘enemies’ and ‘defenders’ on board – something that a quote from Niccolò Machiavelli summarises well:
With field research, however, Andy explained how you have the compelling evidence to support change, which is usually much more powerful than people saying they don’t agree with ideas. A caveat to this is making sure you keep the project team involved throughout the research process. We find that integrating clients into the planning, preparation and delivery of research, helps them understand the users and why change is necessary. For those a little more resistant, we find that getting them to view short video clips or listen to audio recordings can be really powerful.
As researchers it is fundamental we treat users ethically. Andy explained that meeting your users and seeing them use your product in the field, promotes ethical research and also ethical design. By visiting them in a natural setting you have a true understanding of the user, their needs, and importantly empathy.
However, be aware that visiting people in their homes and offices can bring different ethical problems that have to be planned for. Being in a participant’s natural environment means there is likely to be a lot of personal and identifiable information on show. In these cases we will take audio recordings rather than video, to ensure the participants’ anonymity is protected.
There you have it, a round-up of a fascinating talk by Andy Curry on the value of field research and just why he felt the need to share the love. Field research provides a level of richness and detail difficult to unpick with other research methods, as well as an exciting day out of the office – all reasons why we’re so keen to use it whenever we can here at SimpleUsability.
With so many factors making it great, Andy is right, field research deserves to be loved!