Field research and why I love it

Adam Spencer

I was pitching field research to a new client earlier this week. 

I’m lucky to travel a lot with my work. If I’m not remote working or co-located with a client, then I will be crusading up and down the country in the name of user research. 

Much like a secret agent, I’ve been parachuted into the most exotic of rendezvous points. From Hinckley to Weston-super-Mare, I’m there to meet people in their own (typically workplace) setting and understand how a particular website or digital service fits into their day-to-day routine.

There’s been phone interviews where I could sense a user feeling distracted or pressed for time. My initial thought would be: “they’ll have a meeting in ten minutes” – and would understandably prefer to work on that instead of talking with me. Observational research taught me something different.

“This is the office on a good day…”

I’ve seen them suffer with fluctuating internet speeds, interrupting phone calls and Cold War era paper filing systems. You can learn so much about a user just from how they personalise their workspace. The desk plants, their choice of mug or the clustered post-its that they furiously flick through to find a specific password login. That’s become a favourite desktop decoration to look out for now!

Then there’s the less conventional experiences. Sitting in a hospital ward surrounded by 50+ breast prostheses. Or that time when an unexpected fire drill stopped my session altogether. I’ll never forget interviewing an office receptionist in short, intermittent bursts while they handled Amazon deliveries and answered door buzzers every twenty minutes.

My most powerful experience (so far) has to be from my visit to a dementia care home. There I was learning about a deputy manager’s experience of using Skills for Care’s new workforce data service, until one resident stormed into the office and proceeded to caution me for breaking-and-entering.

A surreal moment, but a fantastic insight. That intense exposure from ethnographic research is what builds a richer understanding of a user’s context. I could see how this digital service needed to offer its users bitesize transactions and be intuitive enough for staff to abandon and pick it up again after resolving a care home emergency.

I have no clue what will happen the next time I’m on the road, but that’s why I love it.

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