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Call it Field Study, Not Research.

There’s a form of enquiry user experience designers use that we refer to as “research.” I’m uncomfortable with that term. Here’s why: Research is something that scientists do in laboratories with control groups and statistically significant samples. Research is the heartbeat of the scientific method, whereby hypotheses are tested and proven true or false. While UX designers must gather empirical knowledge about users to inform our work through ethnographic interviews, “research” is the wrong term to describe what we do.

The term I prefer is “field study.” It nicely encompasses both the rigor of the work and the fact that it must be done in situ. Don’t misunderstand me, our empirical efforts are difficult, highly skilled, and demand great attention and care. Our tools are sophisticated and nuanced and the results they yield are a necessary precursor to creating good design solutions.

I simply don’t want scientists or academics to imagine we are committing a flawed form of what they call “research.” I don’t want to step on their professional toes. Nor is it my intent to diminish the value of true scientific research. The rigor of formal research is important for understanding the forces at play in our world, including the nature of human behavior. However, “research” per se is not particularly useful for solving the challenges we face in practical design situations.

The two component terms of the name “field study” are significant. “Field” implies that the work is done outside the ivory tower of the designer’s lair. “Study” implies an open-ended enquiry that seeks to learn what it doesn’t know rather than to prove what it suspects it already knows.

The primary goal behind field studies is more in the nature of discovery than proof. The old maxim is true: It’s not what we don’t know that hurts us, but it’s what we know is wrong that causes the most harm. The primary goal of a field study is to detect the bad assumption, the mistaken truth, the false god. An incorrect supposition will not announce itself boldly, so we must have our senses set to high alert to detect the sour note, the off-kilter observation, the sotto voce mutter, the snark or sarcasm that hints at some underlying cognitive dissonance marking the hidey-hole of untruth.

An incorrect supposition will not announce itself boldly, so we must have our senses set to high alert to detect the sour note, the off-kilter observation, the sotto voce mutter, the snark or sarcasm that hints at some underlying cognitive dissonance marking the hidey-hole of untruth.

Existing organizations should have a significant quantity of institutional knowledge about their business segment and users, and much of it will be invaluable. The conundrum is that much of that knowledge will be wrong, obsolete, based on flawed theory, or impractical to implement. The open-ended nature of a field study makes it the ideal method for winnowing the good from the bad from inside the organization as well as outside.

In my next post, I will discuss what it takes to conduct an effective field study.

There’s always good, practical stuff to read on Cooper’s blog, The Journal.

Ancestry Thinker, Software Alchemist, Regenerative Rancher

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