Visiting your customers at their place of work sometimes called ethnography, shadowing, contextual inquiry or simply a site visit is the best way to understand the way people do their job. This understanding is central to doing great design as it helps you really understand the needs, motivations and goals of your users.

But if you're not careful, it's easy to waste the opportunity and end up overwhelmed by what you've observed.

I've been fortunate to work with a number of user experience researchers, and I've noticed they all tend to be detail-oriented, highly motivated and conscientious. But when I think specifically about the field researchers I've worked with who have stood out from the crowd, there are a handful of particular behaviours I see in each of them:

  • They create a focus question.
  • They audio record the sessions.
  • They take photographs of the environment.
  • They take great notes.
  • They write up a short summary of their observation immediately.

Create a focus question

When you make a field visit to a customer, there's so much to observe that it's been likened to drinking from a fire hose. So before carrying out the visit, highly effective field researchers create a focus question to zero in on the aims of the project. A focus question sometimes called a hunt statement is usually expressed in this form: 'I am going to research [activity] so that I can [design a system].' An example of a focus question might be, 'I am going to research how our customers use our support materials so that I can design an online troubleshooting tool.' The focus question helps you concentrate on the observations that matter and prevent you from treating every observation as equal in value.

Practical tip: I've noticed that highly effective field researchers don't create the focus question in isolation but develop it by working with the project team. A simple and quick technique (first described by Teresa Brazen as a way of engaging school children in user research) is to use a sticky note activity, where you give the project team 5 minutes to brainstorm all of the questions they would like to ask their users. Tell them to write each question on a sticky note, one question per sticky note. After 5 minutes, all the sticky notes are placed on the wall and the team first arrange the questions into groups and then vote for the most important group. That group of questions then becomes the articulation of the focus question.

Record the session

You need to record the session because the participant's verbal protocol is central to your later analysis. Unless you're an expert at shorthand, you'll miss comments, phrases and some of the technical language that the participants use. Even if you're great at shorthand, you'll still miss intonation. Recordings are so important for a proper, in-depth analysis that highly effective field researchers get the sessions transcribed. Typically this costs around £1 per minute of audio, so if you run 15, 1hr sessions it will cost you £900 (about $1400). This isn't cheap, but you need to balance the price against the time you've spent setting up the field visit, travelling to the location and collecting the data. Reviewing the transcript in depth is the most important analysis step you'll make.

Our friends at Adaptive Path like to video record their ethnographic observations. I've found that this is feasible in large, relatively anonymous spaces such as manufacturing plants and production lines, where you are able to set up a camera and film a large area in long shot (very much like the view of a ceiling-mounted surveillance camera). But in an office space — even a large office space such as a call centre — video recording participants is risky, for three reasons:

  • To video record on business premises you need to ask for permission from a very senior person in the organisation and this is often all it takes to have the whole visit cancelled. ('Why are they doing this anyway?')
  • Video recording draws attention to the observation and changes the behaviour in the workplace, with employees understandably anxious that management might use the videos to rate their performance.
  • Commercial confidentiality and data protection issues mean that it just isn't feasible in many situations (for example, when a customer's personal data appears on the participant's computer screen).

Audio recording on the other hand is usually possible in most environments. Because it's more discreet, you don't need to ask permission before your visit: you can wait until you start the observation. I ask permission by trying not to make too a big deal of it: 'I'll be taking notes during our interview, but if it's OK with you I'd also like to record the session as I can't take notes quickly enough.' I also make it clear how the recordings will be used: 'The recording is just for my purposes and anything you tell me will be kept confidential'. It's also easy to pause the recording if sensitive data gets discussed, like when a customer's credit card details are read over the phone. When I get the transcriptions, I change the participant's name along with any other information in the transcript that could identify the participant.

Practical tip: You can keep transcription costs low by supplying the transcriber with high quality audio recordings. We like the Olympus LS-11 PCM because the audio quality is outstanding — it's like listening to a DAB radio broadcast.

Take photographs

When you enter a new environment, there's often so much going on, you're not sure what to record. The risk is that you'll review your notes and transcripts later, only to realise that you can't recall a key element of the environment. Highly effective field researchers tend to take three kinds of photograph:

  • Pictures that show the overall context, such as photographs of the exterior of the building and pictures of the entire office.
  • Pictures that show the participant alongside other people and objects in the environment.
  • Close-up photographs of the participant interacting with specific objects in his or her environment.

Once again, you need to ask permission but in my experience people are quite happy for you to take photographs so long as they know how they will be used. It's even easier to ask if you wait until the end of the session and give the participant a gift before asking (such as some chocolates).

Practical tip: If you really, really can't take photographs, you can always make a sketch. These don't need to be works of art, but useful prompts to remind you about the relations between people and things in the environment.

Take great notes

Although you'll be audio recording the session, don't use this as an excuse not to take notes. The audio recording saves you from having to write extensive verbatim quotations, but it won't tell you about the participant's behaviour and environment.

The challenge when you're taking notes is to make sure that your note taking doesn't disrupt your relationship with the participant. You need to choreograph your note taking so that it is balanced with appropriate eye contact, other signs that you're attending ('uh-huh') and behavioural observations. Despite these constraints, I've noticed that highly effective field researchers somehow manage to take around 4 pages of A5 notes (steno-pad pages in the US) for each 30-minute observation. They also reserve the first page of their notes for any abbreviations and jargon that they hear: this quickly builds into a useful glossary.

My experience working alongside less experienced researchers is that they try to write down everything people say — even when they have an audio-recorder running. The moment the respondent's mouth opens you can hear them scribbling. Hiding behind a notebook is a sure way to miss observations and is very distracting for the participant. So knowing what to write in your notes is important. In addition to a few quotes (the ones that really strike you) you should jot down ideas, key themes as they start to form, and also questions that you want to ask later in the discussion.

Practical tip: If you find that your mind goes blank and you're not sure what to write down, try the 'AEIOU' method. This acronym stands for Activities, Environments, Interactions, Objects and Users:

  • Activities are goal directed sets of actions things that people want to accomplish. What primary activities do users need to perform to meet their goals? What do users mention first? Which action words (verbs) do they use?
  • Environments include the entire arena where activities take place. Take photographs or make a sketch of the environment where the action happens.
  • Interactions are the exchanges between a person and someone or something else. What are the intermediate steps or tasks in the process? What steps does the user enjoy most? What are the user's pet peeves? Who reviews or authorises the work?
  • Objects are the artifacts that people interact with. What physical items does the participant interact with? What software does the participant use?
  • Users are the people providing the behaviours, preferences and needs. What are the participant's goals, attitudes and motivations? What are the participant's capabilities with the product domain and with technology? What education and training do participants have?

AEIOU is just one of several frameworks for making ethnographic notes, but it's the one I find most useful for user experience observations.

Summarise observations immediately

How often have you turned to your notes a week after taking them, only to realise that you can't remember what on earth you were thinking?

This experience is even worse if you've observed 4-6 people in a single day, as they all begin to blend into one another. Because of this, highly effective field researchers always schedule around 15 minutes after each participant to summarise what they have learnt.

Practical tip: To make sure you create an accurate summary, try using a standardised form. You will customise this for each project, but in general it will include some demographic information (like gender and age), a description of the context, any stand-out observations or user stories and a description of similarities or differences with other observations that you've made (this last information is useful if you want to create personas as it helps you group participants). The image below shows an example of a form I use.

Download contextual interview highlights form

Figure 1: Use this form to summarise your observations like a pro

Try it yourself

Although a site visit may take just a few days, if you do it right you'll find yourself returning to your recordings, photographs, notes, and summaries for months afterwards. It's an activity that just keeps on giving. This is because it provides the key data that you need to generate red routes, build personas, create mental models, craft user stories and understand the context of use.

Next time you get the opportunity to visit a customer, behave like a highly effective field researcher and you'll discover how much easier this makes your life as a designer.

About the author

David Travis

Dr. David Travis (@userfocus on Twitter) is a User Experience Strategist. He has worked in the fields of human factors, usability and user experience since 1989 and has published two books on usability. David helps both large firms and start ups connect with their customers and bring business ideas to market. If you like his articles, why not join the thousands of other people taking his free online user experience course?



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David Travis Dr. David Travis (@userfocus) is a User Experience Strategist. He has been working in the field of human factors, usability and user experience since 1989. If you like his articles, you might enjoy his free online user experience course.

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