How to Set Up for Success in Field Research

October 2, 2018 akozlowski

How to Set Up for Success in Field Research

“In the field” means being away from the studio engaged in practical work in a natural environment, like a home, factory floor, or a remote research facility. We’ll walk through three phases that universally feed the ebb and flow of fieldwork. Planning, Prepping, and Fielding.

Planning for the Field

The first step to planning fieldwork, whether it is happening internationally, in the neighborhood behind your studio, or in your lab is making a plan of attack.

Consider your project's scope.

There’s really no hard and fast qualitative sample size wizard to determine the number of participants that’s right for your research questions. It comes down to what information you need to move your design team forward.

Planning for a field study requires that you ask the following questions, and work out a plan with you research team:

1. Who are the people that will be able to shed light on that information? Are there multiple groups of people you need to interview?

2. How much depth of information do you need surrounding a topic to make a design decision? And, how long will it take to achieve that depth in a session? For instance, if you have multiple topics you would like to understand that will increase the length of the session and the more depth of understanding of a topic adds time as well.

3. Do your research objectives benefit from seeing the product or ecosystem (its’ context) in which the experience is happening? Is it logistically feasible to conduct all or part of your research in-context to gain this holistic understanding?

The type of information, depth, and interview time all feed into the cost of your research and the value it brings back to your organization. It also ties directly into the methodology development that is designed to meet your project needs.

Consider your research market.

If you’re doing a local study, this may not be such an important step, but let’s say you would like to include multiple markets in your study. In this case, logistics begin to grow in importance. Especially if those multiple markets exist across multiple countries. You will have to consider things like travel time, time zones, participant availability, native language, cultural differences, and the uncertainty of working in a new place. While it does add a level of complexity in planning, being able to study multiple markets that are relevant to your product allows you the most accurate look at their perspectives, opinions, and challenges.

Consider work space and supplies.

Some studies require field prep, like changing or editing research tools. This can vary from mending physical prototypes that research participants have damaged, to preparing research stimulus sets before each interview. Where are you going to conduct that work? Planning for work space and supplies before heading out into the field makes fielding the most efficient use of time and resources. A hotel room desk will work if the tasks are solitary. But you may need to rent a meeting space, like one at your research facility, or a co-working space to get the job done.

Fieldwork in Context vs. Facility

Being in context provides a rich experience because you are in the environment of the human experience you are studying. For example, if you are trying to understand a kitchen utensil you are in the home kitchen of the users you are studying in the research. Users in their own environment are the most comfortable and natural meaning they provide their most honest feedback and thoughts. This is by far the richest data gathering I have experienced, but it comes at a premium because of the costs and time associated with visiting each research site. This is the tradeoff between experimental control and external validity. Research in context weighs higher in external validity, but provides less control.

"A good portion of design research is not just spent in the field but preparing for the field and dealing with the aftermath of coming back from the field. But what does “being in the field” really mean?"

On the other hand, when you’re working in a designated research facility, sessions are often easier to plan for because you have simplified logistics. This is the experimental control side of the equation. A facility session isn’t always as authentic and rich as it would be in context. Meaning, the findings you have from in context sessions may shed more light on the challenges and desires of the participants than the sessions conducted in a facility.

The choice to conduct work in a research facility or in context tends to stem from solving to overcome research constraints. These constraints are often a combination of time, environmental constraints, cost, and sample size. Experimental control and external validity are always a balancing act, attempting to do your best at both is the key, knowing where to make concessions on one at the benefit of the other takes careful consideration and discussion with your team.

Consider time.

Contextual research takes the time and effort of the fielding team. You are traveling from location to location between each session. There can be traffic, difficulty with directions, or sometimes, the address doesn’t completely take you where you need to go. And you must unpack and pack up at the beginning and end of every session. This is time-consuming for the fielding team, but if done right is very rewarding.

If you don’t have a ton of time, facility sessions may be the way to go. You can load sessions back to back with minimal reset and turnaround time.

Consider environmental constraints.

In contextual research the environment may naturally aid the conducting of research by being quiet and allowing space. But it may also be noisy, cramped, and distracting for participants that could inhibit the research session.

In a facility environment, you can control many more aspects of the interviewing environment. Do you want a table to talk around, couches for a more relaxed setting, or maybe you have prototypes that aren’t mobile that you want them to look at or use? Depending on the goals of your study, it may not be feasible to conduct the research without a controlled setting. Or, you may be able to allow flexibility for a more realistic environment with a little more unpredictability.

Consider cost.

When in context, you’re running all over the green Earth, and that takes up your time. The project will incur higher costs, whether for car trips, airfare, hotels, and other travel expenses.

Facility rental costs vary, but you can also save on other expenses by fielding in a facility. The team saves on travel costs and it streamlines the amount of time it takes to field the same sample size than it would in context.

Consider sample size.

Conducting fieldwork in a facility opens up the opportunity to run focus group interviews without having to find a common context. This can trim a research budget without sacrificing sample size.

Conducting group interviews can drastically increase your numbers in a short time on a lower budget. This is not always the most ideal data because differentiating opinions in a group setting can lead to groupthink. However, if you have a tight budget and a need to increase sample size, the data resulting from focus groups can help provide the answers you need. In a group, participants can feed off each other’s ideas and counter upon each other’s varying perspectives.

Ultimately you can interview the same number of participants in context as you can while in a facility. The difference is contextual settings make running groups difficult. Often the groups can’t be set up in a common in context setting; for example, parent-child dyads in their house or surgeon-nurse dyads in their hospital wing. Having a common in-context place to meet to conduct your interview can become tricky.

Preparing for Fielding

Often, there are many people involved in fielding research. You will likely have a research partner, stakeholder(s), and maybe even a translator/in market moderator. All these people should be up to date on your research goals, processes, and schedules. This is especially important to communicate if you are incorporating a translator or in market moderator (someone who will moderate your sessions in the local language while you observe) in your sessions. If there are miscommunications between team members, vital goals can be forsaken, data can be damaged, or timing could be dragged out.

Consider the skills of the team.

In-market team members can be great allies. Especially if there is a language barrier, or a cost constraint that doesn’t allow a fielding team to visit a market outside of their home market. When partnering with extended team members, ensure the translator and moderators have experience and skills in the type of work you’re doing. Some research techniques, like generative research, are more specialized skills. It can be difficult to teach unfamiliar researchers specific techniques on the fly while in the field. It is best to bring the right skillsets into the field if they are not readily available in the market.

Consider the schedule.

Be careful to give the team enough time in scheduling and conducting sessions. Build in space even if you don’t think you’ll need it. What if the session runs long or the participant is late? You want to be able to build in just enough space to allow flexibility to participants and to the research method so you’re not rushing to wrap a session that started late or must cut one short because the next participant has already arrived. Ultimately you want to avoid disrupting your sessions by trying to balance the schedule.

Also, consider scheduling a gap day. Use that day at the beginning of each market to meet the extended research team, discuss the research flow, materials, and make any last-minute adaptations to the tools.

Consider sending materials ahead of time.

The more time your team members have to look over your materials, the better. Your head has been in this study since the beginning, but sometimes it’s hard to play catch up. Make it easier by sharing the tools and giving them enough time to review them.

Consider the audio/visual.

A research facility’s AV is not always prepared, up to date, or high quality. If you need to cut together screenshots or clips for the report, it’s best to bring your own equipment, or at the very least bring a backup audio recorder and run it. Especially if you are in context. Those moments are yours alone to capture.

While video and audio recordings are really beneficial to the team for analysis, and to the client for immersion, they aren’t always favorable to the facilities. In places like hospitals, be sure to clear your plans to audio/video record with the facility before you arrive to avoid last-minute issues or inconvenience to the facility. This might require weeks of advance notice if the legal department needs to weigh in, so plan for that lead time. Include your intent to record in an informed consent form for participants and make clear to them your intended use of these recordings. You may need to run this consent form by legal as well before you field. Be prepared with a plan for how you’ll respond if they decline to consent you to record.

Making the Most of Fielding

For some projects with quick timelines, you may need to prepare for analysis as you go. This can even alleviate some of the stresses of analysis because the sessions are still very fresh in the teams’ mind.

Field analysis is not always top-of-mind after a long day of interviews. But before you run off to a good meal and some sleep, there are a few tactics to begin analysis that will give you a jump when you get back in the office.

Consider documenting research artifacts.

Photographing your session outputs like maps, canvases, card sorts, and moderator notes allows you to send that data back to your home office to be digitized and analyzed as it is collected. Giving the team back home a glimpse into what is happening in the field allows them to get a jump start on the analysis process.

Consider fielding debriefs.

Plan a half hour to an hour at the end of each day to think about the major findings from the sessions that day as a team. You can begin to list the ideas or themes that the sessions produced and build off this list each day. This helps the team stay up to date, be engaged with the learnings from each session, and make any adjustments to ensure the team is getting the data they need to answer the research objectives. If you can set aside 30 minutes to sit down with the team this can also be done in the car on the way back to the hotel or at dinner with the team. Clients are included in these discussions as much as possible to help with alignment.

Consider fielding coding.

Field coding your notes allows you to have all of your data sorted before you even return from the field. Whether you plan top-down codes to bring with you, or allow codes to emerge from debrief sessions, developing a system to organize findings is a huge time savings. Codes could be based on the sections of the interview or based on high level themes, for example if you’re studying furniture a high-level code may be “durable” and a code based on the research section might be “seating challenges”.

Once your data set is complete, it is already coded and you’re ready to start looking for patterning themes within the codes. Congrats you’ve just cut your analysis time and costs in half!


Whether in a facility, or in context, fielding is very specific to the project needs, and can yield valuable data to help move the project forward. As you gear up for fielding within a project, setting up for success is an important part of the process. Throughout planning, preparing and fielding, remember to consider the following each step of the way:

Project scope
Research market
Work space and supplies
Environmental constraints
Sample size

Skills of the team
Sending materials ahead of time

Documenting research artifacts
Fielding Debriefs
Field Coding

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About The Author

Lauren is a design researcher with a thirst for knowledge that only feeds her curiosity and love of creative problem solving. Her unique experience with co-creation helps discover consumers’ emotional experiences with products and uncover how to create a better experience. She gleams structure from qualitative chaos and helps clients make sense of research to inform development decisions. On the weekends, you’ll find her out riding or maintaining vintage motorcycles. How cool is that?

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