The last four months have been busy for Sense Information Design. We have been working on two big user research projects. The first project involved an evaluative research study, and the second one an exploratory research study. In both cases, our first choice would have been to conduct field research studies to examine the intended audiences. However, we started working with the first project at the beginning of March when lockdowns, social distancing and travel restrictions were becoming commonplace in many countries. In this context, our main questions were: how can we do field research with so these limitations? How can we do field research without leaving home?
We defined these projects as online field research because their goal was to gain a holistic understanding of participants’ needs and behaviors by studying them in their natural habitat, and analyzing how the environment was impacting their work. Of course, as we could not literally observe participants directly in their environment or conduct face-to-face sessions, we adapted research methods to the project constraints.
I am not an expert in online field research, and most likely many other design researchers and ethnographers have developed other ways to conduct research online, but in this post, I share some suggestions to plan an online evaluative or exploratory field research study based on my recent experience.
Seven steps to plan online field research studies
It was essential to keep in mind the core pillars of field research to remember the differences with more quantitative forms of research (like surveys or questionnaires):
The following are the steps we followed for these two projects:
- Identify what we needed to learn. Our first step was to understand the main goal of the study. In the first case, the goal was to evaluate the usability and users’ experience with an existing tool: How might we explore people’s behaviors when using a tool? In the second project, the goal was to provide insights to help develop the concept of a new platform: How might we better understand people’s interests & how they organize information?
Identify project constraints. Then, we listed barriers and constraints. This exercise included obvious limitations like travel restrictions, and others like the fact that we had to investigate people’s behaviors based on more than 50 different countries. This also generated more questions: how could we replace direct participant observations? How could we do something similar to face-to-face sessions?
- Get familiar with digital tools. For both projects, understanding the wide range of digital tools available was key to adapt traditional methods like diary studies, in-depth interviews, and usability sessions. We spent a lot of time testing tools, identifying pros and cons for each tool, from which ones were easier to set up and customize, and easier for a user to understand and use to which ones allowed session recordings, data capturing and analysis. Prices also varied dramatically.
- Design study structure. Once we had a better understanding of the above three points, we started working on possible study structures, including sample sizes, timeframes, methods needed, defining tasks (when needed), etc.
- Design specifics for the study. For the first project, we conducted a digital diary study, so we also designed self-documentation instruments for participants and ways to help participants report emotions and feelings. For example, using emoticons (e.g. Skype, Microsoft Teams, text/Whatsapp messages) was a great way. For the second project, we conducted digital card sorting sessions, so we conducted additional smaller studies to gain visibility into the problem and define the content for the cards.
- Pilot the study. Piloting is a key step in any research study, but we found that this step became even more essential when working online because so many things could go wrong (e.g. weak internet connection, mac-pc incompatibility, software bugs, etc.). For example, for the first project, we had to change the main tools we initially chose for participants self-reporting because some of the pilot participants could not access to the tools.
- Gather different types of data. For both studies, we gathered different types of data sets (visual, written, audio). This really helped us get to know our participants at a deeper level because each data set provided a window into a different dimension of their lives and behaviors.
In order to gather richer insights and thick descriptions, we conducted pre and post study interviews with each participant. This really helped us build rapport with them. We asked participants to describe their environment either verbally during our conversation or visually by sending us photos, screenshots or sketches. We also asked to have the camera on (as much as possible), so we could observe participants’ expressions during the exercises.
As with any research study related to a design project, circling back to the design project is a must. In both cases, we presented research findings as actionable recommendations. For the first project, clearly defined personas and journeys, and identified pain points helped us develop a list of changes to improve the existing tool. We created wireframes and mock ups to illustrate proposed changes in the design of the site interface and navigation. For the second project, we mostly focused on developing wireframes to illustrate a site architecture that reflected participants’ needs and behaviors.
While online field research does not replace traditional field research, this form of research should encourage designers to still pursue research as part of their projects, and not cross it out from the list until we can start traveling again. Even if this form is not perfect, online field research provides a deeper and more complete understanding of the audience, than more quantitative forms of research alone, that can greatly improve the quality and success of a design solution.
In a recent talk for Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana (UAM), Mexico, I delivered a more detailed version of this post. “Diseño de Información virtual: ¿Cómo realizar investigación de campo desde casa?” [Spanish]