Contextual interview & field studies
Last modified on Thu 14 Dec 2023

A qualitative and generative method.

Contextual interviews, also referred to as field studies, are research methods used in UX design and qualitative research to understand how people use products and services in real-life situations. This involves speaking with users while observing them in their natural environments to gather insights into their specific needs, behaviors, and challenges.

In contextual interviews, you observe users in environments where they commonly use the product or service, such as a home or workplace. You ask questions, observe their actions, and learn about their experiences and preferences. Your goal is to better understand how the user's environment affects their interactions.

Field studies go a step further. You’ll spend more time with users, observing them in their everyday settings. You take part in activities, take notes, and even capture photos or videos to better understand the user's context and experiences.

These methods have some great advantages. They provide genuine insights into how users really behave and what they need. By seeing users in action, you can understand the factors that shape a user’s experiences. You also collect lots of qualitative data, like personal stories and observations, which help identify patterns and inform design recommendations. Ultimately, these methods help create user-centered designs that truly empathize with users.

Follow this step-by-step process for conducting a UX field study:

Recruit Participants Find and select participants who represent your target user group. Consider their demographics, behaviors, and any specific criteria relevant to your study. Reach out to potential participants through various channels like online communities, social media, or professional networks, like Twitter, Discord, or LinkedIn. If you’re having trouble finding free participants, try Prolific, a platform for finding target research participants.

Plan Logistics Determine the logistics of your field study, including the location, duration, and resources required. Decide whether you'll conduct the study in a physical space or remotely online, and ensure you have the necessary equipment (stopwatch, sticky notes, notebooks, cameras, whiteboard, audio recorders, etc.) to capture observations and data.

Develop Research Materials Prepare the necessary research materials, such as interview guides, observation templates, consent forms, and any other tools specific to your study. Customize these materials to align with your research objectives and the context of the field study.

Conduct Pre-Study Interviews Before the field study, conduct pre-study interviews or surveys to gather background information from participants. This can help you understand their expectations, habits, and any preliminary insights before the actual observation phase.

Plan the Observation Schedule Create a schedule that outlines the activities and timeline for observing participants. Determine when and where you will be present to capture their interactions and experiences. Ensure you respect participants' privacy and obtain consent for any recording or documentation.

Conduct Observations Be present in the field study setting and actively observe participants as they engage with the product, service, or environment. Take detailed notes, capture photos or videos (with consent), and document relevant information such as the participant's actions, emotions, and context. Pay attention to both verbal and non-verbal cues.

Conduct Post Interviews Following the observation phase of the study where you are passively engaged with the client, conduct post-observation interviews with participants in order to maximize the benefit of blending both passive and active methods. During this post observation phase be sure to ask open-ended questions in order to better understand the users’ experiences, thoughts, and perceptions. If it applies, encourage participants to share their challenges, preferences, and suggestions related to the product or service being studied.

Analyze and Interpret Data Review and analyze the collected data, including notes, recordings, and any other artifacts. Look for patterns, common themes, and insights that emerge from the data. Consider using frameworks or models like affinity diagrams or thematic analysis to organize and make sense of the information.

Generate Findings Report and Next Steps/Recommendations Based on the data analysis, distill your findings into meaningful insights and recommendations. Highlight key user needs, pain points, and opportunities for improvement. Connect these findings back to your research objectives and present them in a clear and actionable manner.

Share and Apply Results Share your findings with relevant stakeholders, such as product managers, designers, or developers. Use the insights gained from the field study to inform decision-making and guide the design and development process. Consider creating personas, journey maps, or design concepts that reflect the user insights and help the team empathize with the users.

Remember, field studies require ethical considerations, such as obtaining informed consent, respecting privacy, and ensuring participant safety. Adhere to ethical guidelines and regulations specific to your research context and ensure the well-being of your participants throughout the study.