Field Studies vs. Ethnographic Studies vs. Contextual Inquiry

At our September virtual conference in, attendee asked Dr. Jacob Nielsen, what’s the subtle difference between a field study, a contextual inquiry and an Esther graphic study? Here’s what he had to say.

This, I think, is a great example of the vocabulary inflation that I talked about in the mini keynote before we started the conference. If any of you heard that, the general point is that this field is really kind of plagued with people constantly coming up with new words and aims for the same thing or even things that are just slightly, slightly different. This would be a great example of that. I actually always like to just use the term field study because to me the defining point is really the distinction between that and laboratory studies. So that really two ways you can get with users like users can come to us. We can come to the users. Those are the only two logically, you know, possible things going to the users location now in a pandemic situation is can be slightly harder and you can do it with some like video visits and so forth. But the general point is you go to their location and that’s different than we get them to us and we ask them to perform tasks and we see whether they can do the things that we want people to do, which is very important. But it’s also very important to see how people live and how they work and their workspace or their living environment, the home environment.

And so that’s I think you get a different type of information from field studies now then that you come to these, so twist on it. But to me, honestly, that’s a smaller point.

So one option is that you do it as a true infographics study, which is to say you kind of like live with the people. And that, of course, we don’t really do. It’s very rare that we would say we will go for an embed ourselves for a month or a year or something like that with with some users and just basically live their lives and see how they behave.

I’m sure that a lot of good things could be learned from that, but it’s rare that we do it.

Contextual inquiry, that’s kind of what inquiry implies, kind of asking questions. And so the one of the twists and methodology is that you can either do pure observation or you can also ask people questions. And then the questions can either be from a set list of questions as various people have defined various lists, you know, and they all or many of them anyway, I could list. So all you can more to come in will be clarifying questions. And those are some twists and variance and the general idea of of field studies.

I do want to say, though, that to me, the real reason we do feel studies is to go out and observe people in their natural environment. And so as little as we can intrude on that, I think the better.

And so to me, I prefer the variance where you ask fewer questions as opposed to the ones where you ask more. If you just go out and do an interview, you might as well do an interview in various other ways, you know. So watching people is to me, the extra value add from it’s a lot of hassle to drag yourself out to all of these different locations. And so one of the benefits are the key benefit of that is that observation. So that would be my recommendation would be to, first of all, to do it, because there’s a lot of extra value that you get from being at customer’s location and seeing how they work. And secondly, to preferably do it as much observational as you can and as little questioning as you can. But that will have to be some follow up questions. I mean, you just sitting there with people for one, two, whatever number of hours, you will have some questions for them after that.

So that thing, I think is fine as well. But to return to the question, I really think that the that the the subtle distinctions between various variants. But that’s not really the important point. The important point is the big distinction between lab study and field study going to the customer. So do that and mainly stay quiet.

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