field visits observation site visits

Site visits show you real user pain

To improve how people use your product, watch the tasks they perform. To get people to love your product, find and fix the small annoyances.

Users lie

Unfortunately, users aren’t very good at vocalizing their tasks and they have often become so worn down by the annoyances that they don’t realize there could be an alternative.

So if you directly ask users what you should fix, or worse still how you should fix it, they’ll give you answers that are incomplete and don’t touch on the root cause of the problem.

Instead, go and watch them. Yes, it’s that simple. There are however some guiding principles to follow so that you get the most out of your visit.

Who is your audience?

First, work out who you care about. Who is your target user? You need a well defined user in order to have a well defined product.

Now arrange to visit some people who match your target user profile. You must visit them in the place where they perform the activity that you care about. Recruiting these people isn’t too hard – just follow these recruiting tips.

You will need to arrange at least three visits for each target user type you uncovered. You should perform at least five visits total. This way, you will meet users with different skill levels and so you’ll be more likely to observe different workflows and coping strategies.

Planning a visit

It’s important to visit users when they’d normally perform the tasks you want to watch. If that’s impossible, ask them to save the tasks up for you but remember that you’re less likely to see their true behavior. For instance, if you want to see mobile phone behavior, you may have to follow someone on their commute to work or at lunch time rather than visiting them while they sit at their desk. 

At least two team members should go on each visit. More than three people is likely to get crowded. Having two people makes it easier to find the place you’re looking for, makes it safer to visit people in their homes, and makes it easier to take good notes.

How to do it

The only tools you need for a site visit are a notebook and pen, and a roll of duct tape. 

The pad and pen are for taking notes and sketching the environments you see users working in. Don’t video record the interaction. Video recording changes how users react to you. Also, you’ll never have time to watch the tapes. Video recording also makes you lazy – you feel like the video recorder is watching so you don’t have to. Don’t use a laptop for note taking – it’s too intrusive and is a barrier between you and your participant.

The duct tape is for your mouth. Yes, you need to remember that you are an observer, not an interviewer. After the introductions, do your best to be a quiet apprentice. Ask the user to describe what they are doing, and feel free to ask clarifying questions, but try to ensure that 90% of the words come from them, not from you. If you are engaged in conversation, you aren’t observing.

Sometimes you will see behaviors that confuse you. Wait until you think the user is finished (or reaches a good stopping point) and then say something neutral like “Can you tell me more about what you just did.” or “I notice you [did a thing]. Can you explain that to me?” 

It is important that you understand the behaviors you observe, but not at the expense of the user’s comfort. You also aren’t there to teach them or to make things better. As soon as you start down this path, you stop being an apprentice and start being an expert in their eyes.

  • DO:
    • Write down what people say and do
    • Take photos of the environment if you’re allowed
    • Engage (smile)
    • Ask open-ended questions (“can you tell me more about…”)
    • Ask for examples (times when “it” happened)
  • DON’T:
    • Engage in conversation
    • Write down solutions or bug fixes. If you’re doing this, you’re distracted.
    • Sell them on your cool product idea
    • Ask them to predict the future

By the end of the observation session, your writing hand should be cramping up. It is not uncommon to have multiple pages of notes. Remember that the best notes are facts, not interpretations. Write down what users say and what they do. You can interpret those quotes and actions later.

When you are done with each visit, it’s nice to ask the person you observed whether they have any questions for you. It’s also usual to pay people for their time – either cash (if it’s a member of the public) or gift cards (if it’s someone inside your organization). If you can’t pay people, work out what else you can do for them – maybe there are some marketing doohickeys lying around the office. t-shirts, mugs, or any other logo-ed product can be a nice way of saying thanks.

What next?

After you’ve filled notebooks with observations, it’s time to make sense of all the data. You need to build an experience map!