IUE2009: Field research class

Today at the Internet User Experience conference I attended a field research class led by Danielle Gobert Cooley.

The morning session was lecture and discussion on differences between lab-based research and field research, and some guidelines and tips on doing field research. Then we paired up and went out to observe some employees at Washtenaw Community College, which is where the conference is hosted. In the afternoon, after doing a couple of research sessions, we came back together as a group and did a little group processing where we tried to analyze our findings.

The sessions themselves were fun, but were missing the benefit of us having done prep and having a clear purpose or inquiry focus. So the analysis was a little tough. Plus, we didn’t do enough observations of people doing similar work to get a rich set of observations.  This is no critique on the instructor; it is just that we had to work with fairly random volunteers who volunteered on short notice (and we are grateful they did). Despite this, actually going out to do the observations was great.

Let me point out a couple highlights that I really appreciate.

  • Book recommendation: “Rapid Contextual Design: A How-to Guide to Key Techniques for User-Centered Design” by Karen Holtzblatt, Jessamyn Burns Wendell, and Shelley Wood.
  • I really, really like doing field research.

Okay, so that second point won’t really help any of you that much.

We did two different field research excursions today, and I now I recall that I really enjoy that part of UX work. I want to do more.

For the first half-dozen or so years of doing UX, all user research I did was in the field, mostly because I needed to operate fast or I was doing it for purely qualitative reasons and sometimes without full awareness from management or project managers. Basically, I needed real design research that I could use right away, so I went out and got it.

But, in the last few years most of the user research I’ve done has been with a little more formality. While I can’t honestly call any of it “Formal,” it did happen in labs where we brought people out of their own environments.

So, here’s a story with a little subtlety about why it’s important to go out into the field for this kind of work. (The design research field is thick with more obvious stories, like, oh the users kept spilling their coffee on the controls, so we built the next version with cup-holders. This isn’t quite that obvious.)

About 8 years ago I was working on a website that people could use to browse photos and purchase high resolution TIFFS or JPEGs to download for their own use. We were envisioning primary use by graphic designers. At this particular institution, it was quite possible that graphic designers couldn’t actually purchase something, but might have a secretary in their unit do the actual purchase. So, one user test we did involved a secretary as the participant.

The secretary proceeded through the tasks (and yes we observed a number or areas we could improve in), and in the wrap-up discussion she asked “So, when will the prints be delivered?”

Funny how we never thought that people might think they had just ordered prints. It became clear that she hadn’t realized that she had downloaded a picture file to her computer. That’s a really important observation. Usability tests rock.

Had we been in a lab instead of at her desk in her office, she might not have mentally processed through what she was going to do with the photos after-the-fact. She was picturing a nice framed print of the beautiful landscape photo she had just ordered on the wall in the office. If she was in a sterile lab—away from her normal surroundings—that might not have occurred to her, because she would have been focused on the study itself. Or, maybe not. We don’t know. I, however, suspect that her normal surrounding played a big role in her thoughts and normal reactions in the study.

Of course, lab research has its benefits. They just don’t generally appeal to me as much.

So, thank you Danielle for a fun day of practicing field research! I hope to be able to do more field research in the near future.