Do’s and Don’ts of Field Research


In a Lean UX process, the time available to conduct user research—planning, recruiting, conducting sessions, and synthesizing findings—is often limited (in comparison with a standard research timeline). That’s why we at Cooper consider one methodology in particular to be a Lean research secret weapon: field testing.

Field testing is a great technique for gathering immediate impressions and reactions to designs in process. We bring a team to a café, conference, or a shopping mall–anywhere we’d expect to find a good concentration of the target audience. Our team hand-recruits a selection of people in real time for brief (15 – 20 minute) interviews. Here are some do’s and don’ts we have learned from experience:


1. Do: Set realistic goals and expectations

You never know what’s going to happen in the field. Some days you might speak with 12 users, and other days you might strike out and attract only a few.

It’s good to aim high—we typically shoot for 10 participants in a day; however, there are times when we wind up with a smaller number of participants, usually somewhere between five and eight.

Be prepared to be flexible with your recruiting criteria. In general, the looser your recruiting criteria, the easier it will be to reach your targets. Field testing isn’t the time to try to find the experienced iPad user who is a college graduate, has downloaded the most recent version of Spotify to listen to jazz, and uses it three times a day.

Think more along the lines of finding someone who owns an iPad and is between the ages of 18 and 60, and you’ve got a much more manageable target audience to work with.

Don’t assume anyone has time to talk to you longer than 20 minutes—even if they do, it will be tough to keep their attention focused for that long in a typical field setting.


2. Do: Establish a home base

Prior to testing, identify locations where you expect to find your audience at a particular time during the day. Scope out places beforehand, paying attention to contextual behaviors, such as how long someone might spend at a certain location, the demographics of the people who visit said location, and a location’s busiest time periods.

Make sure it’s a place where the research team can hang around for a while without being disturbed. If you want to ensure a stable spot at a business, such as a restaurant or cafe, getting approval from a manager to camp out during the day (which you should definitely do) is typically easier than you might expect—especially if you’re recruiting people from outside the business and bringing them in. It can help secure your spot if you offer incentives (i.e. gift cards or coupons) that are spendable in the testing location.


3. Do: Recruit creatively

If you simply approach a potential participant and say, “Excuse me, but would you be interested…,” you’ve probably already lost them. People need hooks to get them talking to you—once the initial jump into conversation is made, there’s a much better chance they’ll participate. Below are some hooks that have worked for us in the past.

  • Holding or standing next to a sign bearing a concise message. For example: “Are you a college student? You might want to talk to us.”
  • Making direct eye contact with a potential recruit. People are more likely to talk to you when you speak directly to them—this establishes a personal connection.  
  • Starting with a surprising (but appropriate) question. For example, recently we asked people, “Do you have health insurance?” It sounds crazy, but if you catch people off-guard with a random question, their curiosity will get the best of them and they’ll want to know why you’re asking.


4. Don’t: Have more than four people present (including the user/participant)

One benefit of field research is that it allows researchers and designers to see users in a natural context; therefore, crowding the participant with lots of observers is counterproductive. An ideal field team consists of an interviewer, a notetaker, and an active recruiter; however, a team member can alternate between being a notetaker and a recruiter if resources are scarce.


5. Don’t: Rely on testing in an outdoor space

Testing people at an outside location, such as a park, can negatively affect how many participants you are able to recruit for your research activity. This “don’t” is based on psychological observations we’ve made over and over again with field testing:

  • People who are outside are usually in transit and are outside only temporarily. They may be preoccupied and unwilling or unable to give thoughtful feedback.
  • Indoor locations are protected from the elements like weather or danger. An outside testing environment could cause people to feel too anxious or uncomfortable to participate in an effective way.
  • People are used to being approached by strangers for all sorts of things while outside (especially in New York City, our home turf). In fact, many are so used to being bombarded with random requests on the sidewalk that they mentally train themselves to avoid anything or anyone they encounter—that’s why the aforementioned hook is so important.

The best way to signify to potential participants that your research recruiter is different from the people who are handing out party fliers, signing people up on non-profit email lists, asking for charity donations, etc., is to bring them inside to conduct the study.


6. Don’t: Openly advertise your incentive

While it’s tempting to yell out that participants will receive a $20 gift card if they just spend a little time answering some questions, resist this urge. People whose ears perk up for this kind of hook are often likely to want to finish as quickly as possible and probably won’t give you the kind of thoughtful feedback you’re seeking.

For example, we tested a participant in the field once, who after the session spread the word that we were giving out gift cards and were looking for more participants. Before we knew it, we had a mob of people waiting to speak with us—the majority of whom didn’t fit the recruiting criteria and were just looking for a gift card. We had to turn them away, and as you can expect, it wasn’t easy saying “no” to a mob of people.

These are only a few of many do’s and don’ts of field research. But, the biggest don’t is: Don’t do field research if it’s not the right research methodology for your situation. Field research can be a great tool, but only if it’s applied in the right circumstances.

As research experts, we can help you figure out if your project is a good fit for this methodology—drop us a line, and let’s talk!

The Editors

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