Developing Care and Understanding

Field research is one of the most important parts of the process when designing technology solutions for the workplace. Here we unpack some of our preferred methods.

Back to Our Approach

The late Steve Jobs famously stated: “technology alone is not enough”. This is something we say a lot at Smudge.

While this phrase means different things to different people, for us it’s a reminder that no matter how skilled we are at designing technology products, the usefulness of those products will be determined to a large extent by how well we have understood the problems we're solving and the people we're solving them for.

That’s why we believe that field research is one of the most important - and often overlooked - parts of the process when designing technology solutions for the workplace.

Arguably the most renowned modern practitioner of field research is Jan Chipchase, founder and director of Studio D Radiodurans and former Executive Creative Director of Global Insights at Frog Design. In his excellent Field Study Handbook, Chipchase notes: “Field research is defined by closeness and empathy. You get close to those you are studying, and in doing so, develop a deeper empathy for their lives and ways of living”.

I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.

Maya Angelou

Here at Smudge, two of our three core values are empathy and courage (the third is simplicity). Both are inextricably linked. In the realm of software and interaction design, understanding the user is just the start, one also has to have the courage to do what’s right for the user in the design / development phase (even if it means taking a more difficult path). As the great American poet Maya Angelou noted: “I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it”.

Putting execution to one side, an important step towards delivering genuinely useful technology solutions is to develop a deep level of care and understanding for the user.

To help with this, we draw from three different areas of qualitative research: immersion, observation and engagement. Within each of these areas, we employ various techniques.

Below are some of the methods we use when undertaking qualitative research in the field.

The key intention is getting at the truth. And since every industry, customer and individual are unique, we use a variety of techniques to expose as many insights as possible. We may also introduce methods mid-stream if they can provide better or different results from those we’ve already tried.

Qualitative Research Methods

1. Immersion

Whenever possible, we want to “walk in the shoes” of users and gain experience of specific situations for ourselves. So we go out into the field, or into other businesses, to better understand the motivations, pain points, high points and emotions of users.

  • Rapid calibration: We look for ways we can rapidly calibrate to a potential user’s mindset and context. It’s easy to miss how cultural and/or socio-economic variables (climate, diet, accommodation, commute, and so on) play a part in a user’s life, especially when the context is vastly different from our own.
  • Direct participation: In certain industries or businesses, it’s possible to directly participate in the daily activities of a potential user. This gives us insight into our subject’s routine, needs, behaviours and goals, and enables us to access and stress-test any existing products, processes and workflows.
  • Role play: We use role play to immerse ourselves in situations that would otherwise be difficult to experience within the constraints of a field study. We conduct these role plays in real-world environments, and design scenarios that will expose parts of the subject’s life that are less predictable or experienced less frequently.

2. Observation

Sometimes immersion isn’t possible because directly experiencing a scenario can require specialised job knowledge or qualifications. In these situations, we shadow potential users and document their current processes and workflows.

  • Behavioural mapping: To gain an understanding of user behaviours, we employ the “What? How? Why?” framework, which helps expose underlying motivations for observed behaviours. It also allows us to map likely emotional responses to particular pain points and actions taken by a user.
  • Guided tours: In some cases, we ask an expert to provide a guided tour of the facility or environment where the work takes place (for instance a manufacturing plant, an airport or a police station), so we can observe a range of workflows and ask questions in context.
  • Customer journey maps: A customer journey map documents a specific single workflow that we have observed. It allows a wider team to understand a real-world scenario without the entire team having to experience or observe it.

3. Engagement

It isn’t always possible to immerse ourselves in experiences or observe others in their place of work. And in most cases, we are aware that our observation and immersion techniques have only exposed a limited subset of scenarios and insights. So we talk to people who live and breathe the industry or business we’re working to understand.

  • In-depth interviews: Face-to-face interviews can reveal emotion and motivation, as well as details about how users approach their work. We employ a range of techniques to expose concrete insights and pain points. If we need a broader data set we might also conduct a written survey, which can be useful in testing hypotheses and assumptions, especially with a larger group.
  • Focus groups: Bringing together several potential users for a focus group can result in discussion that exposes their thoughts or feelings in a different way than a one-on-one interview. We design the focus groups carefully to help avoid groupthink, which can skew the conversation and resultant outcomes.
  • Extreme users: Engaging with “extreme users” can help us understand the full spectrum of emotions and expose the outer boundaries of scenarios in which a solution might be used. Examples include people who have strong opinions, people who are new to a role, people who view themselves as disenfranchised, and people who are very bad (or very good) at their jobs.

If you liked this article, you might enjoy our book. "Balance" brings together our best thinking in an easy-to-read format. It’s available as a hardback from the Smudge Store, a free download from Apple Books or an ePub file.