Here are a number of important considerations that I have learned to take care of when setting up and running a field research project.

  1. Involve as many disciplines as possible
    The more people that participate in the research one way or another, the higher the acceptance of the research results. For example, a solution manager, a development architect, a developer, a user researcher and a UI designer make up a perfect user research team. That way, stakeholders from different disciplines are involved, and this also helps to generate more balanced, objective, and comprehensive findings.
    If you cannot set up a multidisciplinary research team permanently, get stakeholders from different functions to participate in individual site visits/end user interviews. And if this is not possible, invite the stakeholders to the post-site visit analysis sessions, to let them experience the research “second-hand”.
  2. Give your user research project a realistic time frame, but don’t let it drag on for too long
    If a user research project does go on and on, motivation flags, the impressions of the end users fade, and team members tend to get hijacked by other responsibilities. For short, effective user research, make sure the team members are freed to be fully dedicated to the project for its duration. However, even if you have set up your project accordingly, getting customer buy-in and settling site visit dates can blow apart the best schedules and intentions. Take heed of typical off-periods such as end-of-the-year or summer vacations and calculate these into your project plan.
  3. Have a customer pipeline in place
    To keep a user research project within bounds, it helps to have suitable and willing research partners lined up.
    Decide on the industries, regions and company sizes you want to probe into, if relevant, and be aware that you need to get end user input from a minimum of 3-4 customers to get valid and representative results. The earlier you think about getting customer buy-in the better, not least of all because the legal agreements required for user research may not be in place between your company and your favorite customers. Getting the legal prerequisites sorted can put an undetermined break on things!
  4. Know your research objectives and be open for the unexpected
    For best results, start your user research project with a clear research focus and objective. Agree with your project team on the focus of your research. Is it to explore new, uncharted ground? Is it to verify hypotheses you have about an end user’s tasks and responsibilities? Is it to observe users completing a certain set of tasks to understand the very nitty-gritty detail of what they do? Prepare for your visit by creating an interview/observation guide, so that you return with findings that actually help to answer your questions.
    Having said that, make sure to prick your ears and keep your eyes open to get insights that go beyond your initial focus. That way you get answers to questions you didn’t know you had when you started out.
  5. Talk to the end users; don’t make do with their managers or the IT team
    Ensure the customers you plan to visit understand that you want to talk to end users in their work context and without the IT team or business owner present. There’s several points in this:
    • Frequently, your contact at the customer, for example, an IT expert or department head, may offer to stand in for the end user, as knowledgeable proxy. Unless IT experts or department heads are in your target user group, try to get past them to the real end user. If necessary, schedule some interview time with the proxy, in addition to the end users, and so capture both perspectives.
    • To help your customer contacts find the right end users inside their company for your research, send the contact a profile that describes the kind of user you are after (a bit like the WANTED posters used in the Wild West).
    • From my own (painful) experience, it is good to emphasize repeatedly – even at the risk of sounding like a broken record – that you want to talk to the end user alone, without anyone else present. End users change their behavior if managers or other persons from their company are around, and you want to interview and observe them in their regular work setting.
  1. Learn to hold your tongue
    There is “talking to customers” and then there is “talking to end users”: Two very different things. The subject matter experts in a research team often have to bite their tongues during an end user interview. This is because talking to end users is a completely different cup of tea than exchanging information about features, functions and technical requirements with IT or business executives.
    Make sure that each member of the research team understands that when user researchers talk to end users, they ask very basic questions and request that the users actually perform their tasks as they do them every day. Stepping back to the “novice’s” point of view is essential to extract the type of information you want from the end user: the key is to find out how they perform their tasks step by step, what problems they encounter, and what their unspoken needs are.
  2. Evaluate the data, or don’t bother
    How valuable, and sometimes how ground breaking the information collected from end users can be, fully comes to light in the data evaluation sessions. If you don’t analyze the information or skimp on the time or participation in these sessions, you might as well not do the research at all. Analyzing the data works best if all research participants meet as soon as possible after an end user site visit. By sharing their observations, comparing notes, discussing and capturing their input on sticky notes or other creative materials, the research team consolidates the findings for this particular customer.
    After all end user interviews are completed, the perspectives are merged across all customers. With the picture thus completed, and problems and needs identified, the team can start to get creative by generating solution ideas and devising design and implementation prototypes.
  3. Pass on the knowledge
    You’ve learned a lot about your end users. Don’t hog the knowledge; spread the word! During research you got to know your users: you’ve learned about them as persons, about their tasks and work environment, and what helps and hinders them in doing their job. The more people in your development team you share your findings with, the better your final product will support your users.
    For example, turn what you have learned about the users into personas to help developers better understand the type of person they are developing for. Or create task flows that describe the sequence of tasks steps, complete with the requirements and pain points for each step, to help interaction designers create the most efficient interaction paths. Don’t let the valuable information you’ve gathered fade in your memory or collect dust on a shelf.

Have a look at the “Conducting Field Research with End Users” infographic for a brief overview of setting up and running a field research project.

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