Identifying needs: Qualitative field research

March 29th, 2010

In the introduction to his book Designing Pleasurable Products Patrick Jordan writes:

Usability-based approaches 1 to product design tend to view people as users, while products are seen as tools with which these users complete tasks. Because of this usability approaches to user requirements specifications can be limited, tending to emphasize the practical aspects of interacting with products, while paying little attention to emotional or hedonic aspects of interaction.

This builds on Jane Fulton’s idea that simply eliminating deficiencies in products is no longer enough to satisfy users. Products must elicit positive emotions when experienced, both psychologically and physiologically, thus forming a powerful emotional attachment between the user and the product (Fulton 1993).

These ideas have led to the rise of a new design approach known as Experience Design 2. The following quote from the Experience Design Agency Philips Design describes this approach well:

To design an experience, we need to look at the forest, not the trees. For example, to enhance the ritual of waking up in the morning, we need to look at the phenomenon as a whole and come up with something completely new rather than just make a new kind of alarm clock.

In other words, we’re not only designing a new more efficient more effective product, we’re trying to design an experience (with the help of the product). To succeed we need a holistic understanding of the user, their behaviours, attitudes and values, and the context in which the product is used.

In his book About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design Alan Cooper argues how quantitative research and data on its own is inadequate when trying to gain insights into human behaviour. Most people are incapable of accurately assessing their own behaviours, especially when they are removed from the context of their activities. Because we can not articulate our own experiences after they happen 3, the only way for designers to gather accurate data to use in the design process is to go out and observe and participate in activities of everyday life in the natural environment. Only so can we try to understand people, not just as consumers, but as social beings with desires, wishes, needs and wants. Some articulated and some unrecognised (Salvador et al 1999).

Once we see how something exists, how it is embedded in a context of relationships and associations, we begin to understand it. A table might be an eating surface, or it might be a social center of the home. A refrigerator may be a message center for a family in Westminster, Colorado, but it is only a cooling device on a Navajo reservation…

Below I have described three different approaches to qualitative field research 4.

  • Design Ethnography

    The kind of participation with and observation of people in context described above is known as ethnography. Ethnography has its roots in the academic fields of social and cultural anthropology, but in the 1980s and early 1990s it started to be adopted by design firms (Wasson, 2000). It has since developed into its own domain known as Design Ethnography with its own set of tools, theories and methods 5.

    The three main techniques of design ethnography are observation, interview and video analysis (Bloomberg et al, 1993).

    AIGA, the American professional organization for design and Cheskin, a consumer insights consultancy, have produced a wonderful primer on the role ethnography plays in design.

  • Contextual inquiry

    Contextual inquiry is a structured approach to collecting data about work practices by observing and interviewing users on location while they actually work. It is the data gathering part of a larger human-centered software design process known as Contextual Design developed by Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt and described in their book Contextual Design: Defining Customer-Centered Systems.

    The technique is based on a master-apprentice model where the user talks about what they are doing while working and the interviewer/observer interrupts to ask questions as they go along. People have a tendency to summarise in these situations so the interviewer/observer will keep the conversation concrete by asking specific questions and ask the user to explain further if the conversation becomes abstract. The interview will typically be a full day.

    Because contextual inquiry is fundamentally task focused it can be beneficial to combine the inquiry with ethnography. In their paper Using Ethnography In Contextual Design (Simonsen et al, 1997) the authors give “a concrete example of how an understanding developed by using ethnography may challenge an immediate understanding developed mainly through meetings, interviews, and document analysis.”

  • Ethnographic interviews

    Alan Cooper has developed another human-centered software design methodology known as Goal Directed Design. As opposed to contextual inquiry the idea is to first identify what goals motivate people to use the product and only then what basic tasks will help people accomplish those goals.

    The data-gathering part of the process focuses on what he describes as ethnographic interviews. These interviews are short (as short as one hour) and will take place ‘in the field’. The interviewer will try and avoid discussing specific design solutions and technologies. A good technique is to encourage storytelling and ask the user to tell specific stories about their experiences with a product.

In a blog post in late 2009 entitled “Technology First, Needs Last” the cognitive scientist and User-Centered Design evangelist Don Norman wrote that companies are better off making incremental improvements to existing products than trying to be innovative and use ethnographic methods as described above to “achieve major conceptual breakthroughs”. It is certainly a provocative post going against the current ‘trend’ for innovation, but if you read carefully he is actually not arguing against field studies as a way to inform design, he’s just arguing that they are unlikely to lead to conceptual innovation. However, the post is an interesting starting point for a debate about the value of qualitative field research and where design resources should be focused. James Kalbach, a User Experience Consultant, wrote a considered response that is also worth a read.

In my next post I’ll describe three tools and methods that can be used to turn the data and insights gathered from the field research into a form that is useful in the design phase of the interaction design life cycle.


  1. A typical usability-based approach is Usability Engineering as described by Jakob Nielsen in the book Usability Engineering
  2. When this design approach is applied to a service it is described as Service Design. At the time of writing there’s an increasing interest in Service Design in mainstream media. For instance the UK newspaper The Guardian carried a whole supplement dedicated to Service Design on 15th March 2010. View website. Download pdf.

    The increased focus on Design Thinking and Innovation in business literature (Business Week has written extensively about the topic) has also led to a shift in the way many companies drive product development. From typical marketing-led research such as competitor analysis and focus groups to a more ethnographic-style research about broader issues.

  3. In a talk at TED in February 2010 called “The riddle of experience vs. memory” the psychologist Daniel Kahneman talk about our “experiencing selves” and our “remembering selves” and how there’s a disconnect between the two.
  4. There are a number of other qualitative research methods that can be mixed and matched with the three field study methods I will mention here. The Service Design agency Engine has produced an extensive list of methods they use with a short description of each.
  5. For example University of Dundee offers a MSc in Design Ethnography:


  • Bloomberg, J., Giacomi, J., Mosher, A. and Swenton-Hall, P. “Ethnographic field methods and their relation to design” Participatory Design: Principles and Practices.
  • Fulton, Jane. 1993. “Physiology and Design.” New Human Factors. American Center for Design Journal, 7(1): 7-15.
  • Simonsen, Jesper. and Kensing, Finn. “Using Ethnography In Contextual Design” Communications of the ACM, July 1997/Vol. 40, No. 7
  • Tony Salvador, Genevieve Bell and Ken Anderson. 1999. “Design Ethnography” Design Management Journal, Fall 1999: 35-41.
  • Wasson, Christina. 2000. “Ethnography in the Field of Design” Human Organizations, Vol. 59, No. 4, 2000

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