Recently, our cross-functional team planned to conduct a field study during the Validation, Discovery, and Design (VDP) phase of a project for a client. In that study, we intended to shadow people while they used their current software systems at a job site. We wanted to learn how they did their work today, what pain points they ran into, and understand their day-to-day life so we could design an improved system.
The weather in Texas during winter can be unpredictable, and the weather forecast called for cold and rainy conditions when we had planned on doing our study. This wouldn’t usually be an issue, but the work site for the field study was outdoors, off paved roads, and required special safety training certification just to get through the gate. Adding inclement and uncomfortable weather to the mix made me question if this was the right thing to do.
However, a colleague on the project pointed out that the client mentioned having to work in all weather conditions – even in 3 feet of snow at one of their northern locations – which was a good point. What better way to gain empathy for our users than to truly spend a day in their shoes? Or, in this case, muddy steel-toed boots.
Developing a Plan
Any time we’re planning user research, it’s important to sketch out a plan. Key parts of that plan include objectives, success criteria, participants, methods, and reporting. There are some great resources for building a research plan.
Part of a research plan is logistics. Those logistics can be straightforward for an office visit or remote interview. But for a field visit of this nature, I realized we would have to expand that part a bit more.
As I mentioned, it was not a typical in-office setting. We needed to be able to carry out our research safely and successfully while meeting our research objectives, so we created a field study logistics checklist.
Field Study Logistics Checklist
Safety is always the first consideration in industrial settings, and with good reason. Building and maintaining a strong, safety culture is important to help prevent illness, injury, and death.
- Safety plan: Develop and communicate a safety plan for the study, including emergency contact information and procedures for severe weather or other unexpected events, along with any job-specific plans and requirements for the task at hand including personal protective equipment (PPE) and first-aid equipment.
- Weather: The weather can significantly impact the study, so it’s essential to have a plan to deal with the weather conditions. This may include appropriate clothing, portable shelter, backup locations, or even rescheduling the study if necessary.
- Permits and Training Certifications: Many industrial locations require specific safety training from anyone that sets foot on-site. It’s critical to discuss any potential requirements with the sponsoring organization to understand if any training may be needed ahead of time.
2. Food and Water
Consider planning to provide snacks or water if the study takes more than 2 hours or if the conditions make it necessary.
Ensure there is a reliable communication method during the study, not among participants, but to “the outside world” if needed. Cell service is not ubiquitous when going off the beaten path.
4. Permissions and Site Access
Depending on the location of the study, you may need permission from property owners or local authorities. It’s also important to research the necessary permissions well in advance of the study and ensure that you have all the necessary documentation.
Arrange appropriate transportation to and from the study location, including rental cars, public transit, or chartering a vehicle if necessary. Review the location on Google Maps aerial and street view ahead of time to see if any special arrangements should be made.
Identify any need for appropriate lodging for participants and researchers, including options for extreme weather conditions.
And don’t forget to include the impact on the budget of these considerations.
These considerations may all seem daunting and potentially discouraging to doing a field study but remember the goal of your study – to improve the lives of the people using the software you’re going to build. And spending a day in their shoes (muddy boots!) out in the freezing rain or baking heat will help you gain an appreciation for their world when designing the perfect software.
Our User Research Field Study Logistics Plan
So, for this study, here’s what we came up with as our logistics plan:
1. Make a safety plan and communicate it to the team.
- In addition to other items, it included the need for specific personal protective equipment, such as fire-resistant clothing.
2. Get any safety training certification ahead of time.
- Our client helped to identify the specific training that the site required, and got us in touch with a training provider. Our entire team had to complete the training and produce certificates of completion.
3. Plan for cold and rainy weather.
- Dress in layers and have a water-resistant outer shell. Ask for tips from team members with camping, hiking, and field experience.
- Think about how we’re going to collect data in poor conditions. Writing in a notebook in windy, freezing, or rainy conditions can be challenging. We took tons of photos and made voice and video recordings to augment our notetaking.
4. Be prepared to work at a remote location all day.
- Have snacks and drinks to last the whole day if needed. Concentrating on the task at hand is hard if we have low energy.
- Plan appropriate transportation for the weather and condition so the field study site. In the end, we swapped vehicles around so we could take a 4WD vehicle into the site – it was a good thing we did, as the final stretch had a steep berm and deep mud.
With this plan in place, the team went on our field study well-equipped to gather data and learn from our clients. We came away that day having learned a ton of valuable information about the specifics of our client’s work. We gained a great appreciation for one aspect of the environment they work in daily. That information made us well-equipped as we designed a software product to make their work in the field safer, more efficient, more accurate, and hopefully even a bit more enjoyable.