Here's the stuff I take with me on a field visit. I may not use all of it, but I like to know it's there, just in case.

Topic map

This is a single sheet of paper with a note of the 7 key topics I'm hoping to explore in my research sessions. I draw it as a map rather than as a list because that encourages me to approach the session non-linearly. I rarely cover all 7 topics with every participant but a quick glance at the topic map keeps me grounded. I never use a discussion guide or a list of questions: this creates too much structure and prevents me from discovering what I don't know I don't know.

Schedule

This is my diary for the day. Who I'm visiting, who I need to ask for (if different) and a mobile number in case I get lost.

Map and directions

I use my phone for navigating but Google Maps sometimes fails at the final hurdle. So I get written directions for the final stage of the journey.

Phone

This is my field visit Swiss Army knife. I use it to find my way to the participant's location, for calling the participant if I'm lost or running late, and also for taking photographs of the participant's context. I also use my phone for photography in preference to a dedicated camera because it's less obtrusive than a DSLR with a 24-70mm lens. And it's invaluable for those short video clips, for example to understand a particularly convoluted workflow.

Digital voice recorder

Good audio is critical for reviewing the findings from a session. At a pinch, you could use your phone (although that prevents you from using your phone for anything else, like photos or video). But the audio quality from a dedicated voice recorder beats what you'll get from your phone, especially when you're recording in a noisy environment. This is because dedicated voice recorders have twin, directional microphones. I use an Olympus LS-10. It's a bit outdated nowadays but still makes DAB-quality audio recordings. As well as using this to record the sessions, I also use it immediately after the session to summarise the stand-out observations, dictaphone style. This allows me to cover more information, more quickly than if I restrict myself to a written summary.

Forms

I like to keep the admin simple but one form is always mandatory: the form for informed consent. This tells the participant how I'll use their data and makes it clear that their participation is voluntary. If I'm showing the participant an unreleased product (rare in a site visit, but always a possibility), I may also need a non-disclosure form (NDA). I hate asking participants to sign these as they've been drafted by lawyers, but sometimes the client won't authorise the research without one. Finally, I usually have an incentive form. This is for my accountant: it's simply a receipt that the participant signs to say they received money from me.

Incentive

I nearly always give a participant money for their time. Some situations may require a more culturally-appropriate gift, such as a gift token or chocolate. With cash, I make sure the money is bagged up in an envelope before I meet the participant. This is more discrete than getting out a wedge of cash. Incidentally, I give the incentive to the participant at the beginning of the session, even before they've signed the consent form.

A5 notebook and pen

If I'm moderating the session, I rarely take extensive notes because I want to concentrate on the participant. Instead, I prefer to have a notetaker with me (often from the development team). So to be honest, the notebook and pen are a little bit of UX research theatre. Nevertheless, I do take some notes. I like to use a good fountain pen: I find that if my handwriting looks nice, I take more notes.

Stickies & Sharpie

I don't always use these but I like to have them with me when I want to understand a workflow or a user journey. I'll ask the user to write each step on a sticky note. I'll then photograph the map before dismantling it and putting it in my bag.

Laptop

I never use this during the session itself but for afterwards, normally when I'm sitting in the car or in a local coffee shop. I copy the audio files from the voice recorder and then erase the originals. This is because my laptop is secure (password protected) whereas the voice recorder isn't.

External, encrypted hard disk

Used to make a copy of any electronic files.

Various cables & card readers

These include a USB C to Lightning cable so I can get copies of anything stored on my phone and a SD card reader for the audio files.

Power bank and spare batteries

You can never have enough power.

Business card

I hand this to the participant at the beginning of the session along with a copy of the consent form so that they can contact me afterwards if they have any questions. It also helps emphasise that I'm independent of the sponsoring organisation.

What do other UX researchers carry?

I spoke to some colleagues to find out what they found essential. They also mentioned some of the items above but there were other suggestions, including:

  • Smart pen. These pens record audio while you take notes. When you review your notes you can tap in your notebook and replay the audio that was recorded at the time you took the note. In theory they sound terrific; in practice, I've found them less useful. My LiveScribe pen was buggy and it felt awkward to write with, so ironically I took even fewer notes with it than usual. But see this article for an alternative view.
  • Video camera. I've found these too intrusive, especially as they often need to come with a camera operator. It's true that video recording is standard practice with a usability test, but with a field visit, when you're going into someone's home or office, it can dominate proceedings. I might use my phone to make a short recording of a specific activity, but I don't record the whole session. But never say never: I must admit that I'm tempted by the tiny and discrete DJI Osmo.
  • Tripod. This is needed if you use a video camera and don't have a camera operator as part of your crew.
  • Stills camera. I prefer to use my iPhone. I can't think of a situation where a dedicated stills camera would be better.
  • External mic. A lapel mic can be useful if you're using your iPhone for audio recording. But I find that attaching a mic to the participant is too intrusive. This is why I use a dedicated audio recorder, as the directional microphones deal better with noisy environments.
  • Document camera. This is not something I've ever used but I can see this would be useful for workflows that involve many paper documents. It would also be useful as an ad hoc mobile recording sled for situations where your participant is doing a lot of work on a handheld device.
  • Wipes. These are useful to clean your laptop screen and keys after the participant has used it. Since I'm more interested in the participant using their own technology, I don't carry these.
  • Nutrition bar. This is really useful for those times when your session overruns or you can't find a local cafe. I should pack one of these.

Thanks to the following UX researchers for their suggestions: Jennifer Adam, Nick Bowmast, David Hamill, Nicola Hancock, Agnes Kiss, BÝrge Kristensen, Moira Mastrone, Stephanie Pratt, Leonie Tame, Alessandra Viero.

-oOo-

About the author

David Travis

Dr. David Travis (@userfocus) has been carrying out ethnographic field research and running product usability tests since 1989. He has published three books on user experience including Think Like a UX Researcher. If you like his articles, you might enjoy his free online user experience course.



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David Travis Dr. David Travis (@userfocus) has been carrying out ethnographic field research and running product usability tests since 1989. He has published three books on user experience including Think Like a UX Researcher.

Phillip Hodgson Dr. Philip Hodgson (@bpusability on Twitter) has been a UX researcher for over 25 years. His work has influenced design for the US, European and Asian markets, for everything from banking software and medical devices to store displays, packaging and even baby care products. His book, Think Like a UX Researcher, will be published in 2019.

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