Over 80% of my projects in the last two years have contained some form of contextual and participatory research: interviews and observation have been primarily represented but other approaches involved were design probes, design games and other workshop tools, walk-along, focus groups and mystery shopping. What practical lessons have I learned so far?

Two major projects, my current thesis and our IDBM industry project have included one week marathons in a set destination: exploring passenger experience on safety on a cruise in the Mediterranean, and studying innovation system development in ICT and energy sectors in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Hanoi, Vietnam. Field work is not about going to exotic locations but should the project require that it certainly drives the stakes between success and returning empty handed higher. Other projects have followed a similar limited period intensive model close to office and home, such as our 358 and Sanoma project, while in others field work has meant dispersed activities organized for different purposes during various stages of the design process. At least three out of all projects did not lead to designs that I would call a valid success in the end. Yet each of the projects has taught me more about field research and project management.

grass and flip-flops

— listed below are my practical learnings, in random order–

Plan Ahead
A one week intensive field trip can easily take a month’s worth of preparation. Typically such trips are also expensive: the minimum cost is each member’s salary while deployed but often include a number of travel expenses. One should also respect the time and attention interviewees and other participants are ready to give to you. IDEO HCD field kit gives the practical advice that each member should have at minimum a clear idea of daily research schedule, tasks and responsibilities. While research team size can vary through a project, at least the persons directly involved in field research should be included in the planning process if possible.

Snap Decisions
Formal introductions are great when hierarchy matters and there are clear gatekeepers (working with e.g. companies, communities, kids). However, there always seem to appear five seconds windows of opportunity to catch a new interviewee, ask a crucial question or take a snap shot of a situation. I’ve learned that to some extend regret over lost possibilities is one part of field work the hard way. The lesson here is to learn to live with that, and to always keep your sensors out: when the opportunity presents itself, jump. The people you address might be at least as surprised at being approached by you but sometimes this is the best way to attune their responses to you, to acquiring insights.

Discussing people
Determining criteria for selecting your informants is naturally a key part of the planning process. This includes a selection of an appropriate term of how you refer to people when disseminating your intentions and results. Some terms tend to put a damper on the conveyed empathy when talking about the people you’ve met. Most terms establish a framework, a role on them. Early, method-oriented courses I took were driven towards user research. This seems appropriate when you’re looking for end user needs and motivations. Stakeholder already carries a wider connection, referring to each and every relevant person: manufacturer, buyer, maintenance worker, regulation official, circle of friends, …. The selected term depends on the purpose of each project but is also one tell-tale sign of how you see the people you’ve worked with during research.

Design is typically best inspired by rich qualitative, descriptive data while quantitative, numerical data can equally give key insights and justifications for design. Due to the nature of qualitative data the number of informants is small: 3-5 in-depth interviews per researcher appears to be a workable amount due to the additional documentation and after-work required. As conclusions are based on a small sample size the risk for misinterpretations and unjustified extrapolations is higher unless several perspectives are used to shed light on the topic of investigation. During projects we’ve benefited from going through the same questions or themes with different interest groups, several members of staff representing different hierarchical levels and departments, and interviewed couples at the same time but separately. Most aspiring projects have also been conducted with a multidisciplinary research team allowing for several perspectives to be introduced during interpretation. The rigidity of this principle is of course somewhat related to whether the aim is to propose ‘solid facts’ or to feed inspiration into the design process – there’s no need to talk to more people if a single chat has already given you the insight you need.

During intensive work periods I have found myself getting repeatedly up from bed after midnight to jot down notes and insights, being unable to fall asleep before 3 or 4am. A colleague on our cruise reported the same phenomenon while trying to take a nap during day: her brain started organizing and making sense of the things she had heard and seen. Another colleague politely and correctly requested research related discussions to be banned during lunch and dinner to allow for natural breaks. While field work should give a rush of adrenaline for the project, ensuring sufficient rest and time for reflection is best for the well-being and continued absorption ability of each team member.

Debriefs, meetings with the team to share and pre-analyze findings, should be held as repeatedly and as instantly after research sessions as possible. This has been drilled into me by each of my mentors and related literature alike. I have found these notes containing raw data to be highly beneficial for later stages – there’s always the chance to go back, see where a lead came from and re-evaluate it if necessary. However, as time and energy for listening are limited resources, debrief sessions should have assigned rules, possibly a ready template to be filled and a facilitator to guide the session. As much as I personally love this part of the process persistence is required to withstand that a certain amount of discomfort.

Excerpt from our field guide outlining debrief process
Here is the initial plan for our daily cruise debriefs from the field kit we prepared. Small adjustments were made, e.g. times changed, as we tested the process in practice.

Optimal Documentation
There’s beauty in the optimal, not just in the X-factor and ‘best possible’. I’ve kept a journal on personal notes, insights and ideas which I have tried to fill out each night after research (although working just before going to sleep does reduce the quality of rest). These journals containing quick sketches, little anecdotes and cryptic snippets, such as “older people – why this place and not the other”. These journals are fun to look through after as they trace your thoughts at the moment when you were highly involved in the research. Sometimes I draw a little light bulb next to quickly noted ideas that pop up during research sessions in order to have an easier time finding them later. It is a given thing however, that a good deal of notes recorded and discussions shared within the research team lead to a significant surplus of information. Focus, gut feeling and honed expertise are all required to weed out the truly beneficial and interesting pieces of data. Another crucial documenting tool for me is a camera – and I try to take as many pictures as I can while keeping my observation goals in mind. Observation pictures are not about art and great angles but they are often aimed to focus on a certain observation or best describe a situation or context. I’ve learned that lugging around a systems camera is too bothersome and makes it hard to not have people stare at you when taking pictures. A tiny pocket camera or smart phone is easily portable as long as you make sure that image quality gives no unpleasant surprises after loading the images on a computer. A compact Panasonic camera with panorama lens (I forget the model) was a blessing while taking pictures in a cruise ship to capture the feeling of the place. The second camera, a Canon Ixus I used for cropped focus images. One should also remember that sounds, smells and motion play a role in observation next to visual cues.

Time Allocation
Field work is more time consuming than one would easily imagine. Planning, preparations, execution, documentation and preparation of data, analysis and reporting should each receive allocated time. Having a clearly cut research focus, a good brief, certainly helps to streamline the process even though exploration is a key quality, especially in concept stage at the front end of design development. Smart task divisions and a balance between individual and team work also help.

Personal engagement
One objective, or highly beneficial side-product of field research should be increased commitment and empathy of the research team. A key reason to do field research is about learning to look outside your own perspective and to learn about contexts previously unfamiliar to you. Personally, I have found that the best research tools are personal engagement and true interest towards what others have to say. Not everyone is cut out for this nor would personally benefit from it. I’m introverted enough to admit that approaching new people is often uncomfortable for me. But I’ve also ended up finding myself lucky to be able to meet amazing people and to work out fascinating, grounded findings. This has created a somewhat love-hate relationship towards field work: although intensive, challenging, time-consuming and painful at times, the joy of discovery related to good field work is immense.