Doing Field Studies Remotely

Field studies are one of my favorite forms of UKCS research, as you can observe, people doing their real work in the real context in which they do it with all the interruptions, work arounds and environmental influences you would never otherwise know about.

Unlike usability testing, you don’t prepare tasks that you ask users to complete. You observe their actual work inside you. But right now, much of the world is in quarantine and we can’t just go visit someone’s office or home to see how they work. Can you still do field studies remotely? Is it even worthwhile? I’d argue yes. I like to think of these as Semin contextual inquiry, since you’re only getting part of the true environmental context. But there’s still one of the best ways to understand what people really do and what else is going on around them. Here are some tips to make remote field studies successful. Before the study, have your participants take a few pictures of their work area and the room around it. That way you have some idea beforehand of what the user might be looking at. If they say look off to the right during the session, you would know that, for example, their partners over there helping the kids at Zoom School. I like to have people sign into the remote session with both their phone and their computer so they can have a mobile camera at the ready. You can even ask them to use their phones camera, not the selfie one, the good one, and walk around the workspace a little to show you how things are set up when scheduling. Expect at least an additional 30 to 45 minutes of overhead to deal with technical issues. If you have the participant using both their phone and computer in the session, you’ll need to plan on a little time to make sure you don’t get any feedback or EKOS always have them start with their devices on mute and unmuted them one at a time. When you switch into the observational part of the study, turn off your webcam so this can help participants forget that you’re there and reach more of a state of flow in their work. But turn your camera back on when you ask questions. Have the participant think out loud like a usability test. I know some researchers insist that a true field study doesn’t use the thing cloud protocol and that participants should work as if they’re not being observed. And you ask questions during breaks. But I find this is much harder to make work remotely. You can’t easily point to parts of the screen to trigger conversations and discussion after the fact. So have them think out loud. You have to watch very carefully for contextual environmental cues. If they lean into their screen to get a good look at something, ask questions. If they keep referring to a printout on their desk, have them hold it up to the webcam or take a picture of it with their phone for you in person.

These things are easy to notice, but virtually you can’t necessarily see all the Post-it notes on their monitors. You have to be hyper vigilant and watch for these things like a hawk. Since virtual sessions that run longer than two hours are really difficult because users get tired. Consider doing follow up sessions, think of the first one is pure exposure to their work without knowing what you might get to observe if they start doing an interesting workflow. But it only happens once or twice as when they’re planning on doing that work again. And if they’d be open to letting you observe it, getting paid for it naturally.

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