Making your field studies more effective

The key to fruitful ethnographic field studies is getting the interviewee to trust you. Our studies are usually just sit-down interviews. Occasionally they include observations or ride-alongs, depending on the how a client’s products are used. It’s vital that we get an unvarnished view of reality, without advice or political spin. Getting an interviewee to reveal genuine insights into their world demands a high level of trust.

Generally, users have experienced discussing unpleasant technology with their boss, and it has only brought them shame. The most difficult and sensitive part of the interviewer’s job is to overcome the user’s reluctance to speak frankly.

Interviewees will be reticent to speak, or will tell you that things are “just fine” until you can develop some rapport. Once they decide that they can trust you, they will confide their real feelings to you, but only gradually.

It is always more a process of discovery than one of confirmation.

We are looking for patterns of understanding and behavior in our users. It is always more a process of discovery than one of confirmation. This type of open-ended enquiry is very different from most conventional market research. It relies on quality rather than quantity of interviews. Interviewing no more than one or two dozen users is always adequate, rather than the thousands needed for traditional quantifiable research. However, we invest a lot more time in each interview.

Trust is a fickle thing. It takes time to earn it and a split second to lose it. The slightest hint from an interviewer — a glance in the wrong direction, a subtle shift of tone — can alter a subject’s answer. People want to please, and interviewees will do their best to give interviewers the answer they think we want. It’s important that we don’t “lead the witness.”

In our experience, few subjects will reveal anything profound in under 30 minutes, which is why we schedule one hour for each session. Not infrequently, we find the really juicy revelations come at the very end of the interview, or beyond it, as everyone stands up to disperse. Never force the interview to end. Let the interviewee draw it to a close.

The best way to build trust is to be patient, be quiet, ask thoughtful, open-ended questions, and listen to the answers with genuine interest and curiosity. That’s not easy to do, particularly when you are also taking notes planning your next question. That’s why we prefer pair-interviewing. Having two interviewers allows them to trade off the lead while the other is making notes or pondering the last answer. However, this also means the interviewee is outnumbered, so even greater vigilance is needed to avoid intimidation or influence.

Not only will focused, specific questions get you low-quality answers, they loudly convey your bias. A sure way to short-circuit any trust is to ask leading questions like, “Do you like this app?” All the user hears is, “If you don’t like this app it will go badly for you!”

There’s significant value in just getting a user to talk freely about something, anything. Once they begin talking they see you are supportive instead of reactive, and they start to relax. The more they share, the safer they feel and the greater their trust in the interviewer. The more they trust, the more truth they tell.

Most users want to talk. They want to tell you about how they are forced to wrestle with difficult products and inscrutable interfaces. What’s more, they are usually motivated by a genuine sense of contribution. They believe if they can make things better for themselves, they also make it better for others and for their employer. If you can make them feel safe, if you can get them to trust you, they will spill their guts.

Here’s more on effective field studies.

Ancestry Thinker, Software Alchemist, Regenerative Rancher

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