Field Research in Information Design



Overview of qualitative methods that you can use to study intended audiences and test solutions in contextual settings, such as workplaces, museums, hospitals, airports, homes, the street.

If you are an information designer you can enhance your work by using field research. However, this type of research is still frequently overlooked in information design professional practice (the research community does conduct research studies, but that reality is very different from what occurs in the daily design practice). Traditional market research methods (surveys, online questionnaires, focus groups) aren’t enough to gain the thorough understanding about people that current challenges demand. I’m not the only person advocating for the use of “this other approach” in professional practice (here, here, here) So, why is that field research in still not having the role it deserves among information design practitioners?There is a rich repertoire of research methods that you could use in the field or contextual settings to gain better understanding of people:

  • Ethnographic methods to study people in their workplaces, homes, museums, etc.
  • Participatory design methods to invite people into the design process
  • User experience design methods to examine people’s experiences when using something in their natural habitat
  • Contextual inquiry to study people’s interactions with and using a specific solution in their own context

The contextual and qualitative approach of these methods is an important difference from market research methods which predominantly use an experimental and quantitative approach. Qualitative methods used in contextual settings place people at the centre, and insights gathered can help you make design decisions more in line with real needs. This gives more credibility to your designs because your design process is actually supported by evidence (rather than personal taste). Qualitative research gives you a theoretical supportive framework—the why—that even if you were the most experienced information designer won’t have.

A need to focus on people’s needs

If qualitative methods have been around for a while, why now there seems to be a louder fuzz about using them in the design community? Because social problems are more complex, and thus information design challenges are more complex. While as information designers, we do have the mindset and technical skills to translate complexity into clearer terms, we aren’t fully prepared to tackle the growing complexity of current challenges—our design experience and knowledge aren’t enough to create effective solutions. Particularly, we need support in the steps of the process that focus on understanding people in their context, gathering high quality and useful insights from them, and making sense of those insights to inform the process (how can we transform research insights into action items?). In simple words: we need qualitative and field research skills.

Quantifying what people want and creating statistics aren’t enough; these don’t provide a holistic understanding about people. In order to support people’s cognitive activities and facilitate understanding, we first need to identify what people need or want, or why something isn’t working for them. However, too often, people aren’t aware that something could work better because they have developed ways around and learnt how to deal with unnecessary ambiguity, confusion and complexity. In other cases, people don’t know how to articulate what they need, simply because they don’t know what they want. Qualitative methods can help fill this gap. Particularly methods coming from anthropology and sociology help identify physical, psychological, and cultural requirements that people have by accessing tacit and semi-tacit knowledge, and identifying latent need.

People’s needs should be the anchors of our daily work, informing our design decisions and providing a roadmap for creating solutions. (Yep, this also applies if you are the most seasoned information designer)

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