Key questions for field research

Get the basics right

Field research is the basic research you do to nurture your design practice. It’s about using observation, shadowing, interviews to understand people and how they live. From there you get key insights. These tell you what the design brief should be. It shows you how you could reframe it.
In this short article, you’ll find key questions. Ask them yourself before doing field research and after having done it. These question should help you stay focused and not to lose yourself in the data mess.

Before field research

Post-it party topics

Before starting any field research, it’s good practice first to do your homework. That means digging in the books, articles, and Wikipedia. Read the client briefing, make sense of it. Once your head is full of knowledge you may think that you are ready to design. No. You are just ready to start asking questions and observe people. Even before you can do this, you have to structure your questions and knowledge. I use three simple questions as main categories for a little post-it party. On each post-it put a question or a piece of knowledge. Each post should answer one of the following questions:

  1. What do we know?
  2. What do we suppose?
  3. What don’t we know?

Once you have this, you know what you know. And you know what questions you should ask and what you could observe. Now comes the playful part. Meet some people, ask them questions and look them do things. The field research can start.

After field research

Making sense of the insights

Great, you did the field research. You have a lot of images, videos, notes and thoughts. All these information are in different places, different devices, and different mediums. Know you have to make sense of what you saw and maybe learned. To help you with this you can follow the questions that Rachel Hinman offers to us. Hinman wrote down these questions in a case study that she wrote for Jon Kolko's book Exposing the Magic of Design. Here are the questions that will structure your knowledge:

  1. What did we see?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. Why does it matter?

I would then add one little question more to make your newly acquired knowledge actionable: What can we do with it?