How to Conduct Field Research Anywhere (Book Review)

A review of
The Field Study Handbook

Field Institute

About this book

by Jan Chipchase

Book Website

A good reference for Methods/How-To and Case Studies

Primary audience: Researchers who have some or significant experience with the topic

Writing style: Matter of fact

Text density: Mostly text

Learn more about our review guidelines

I have never before taken a “work” book to bed, and then read it compulsively all night. I actually haven’t done this since I was a kid (and then a flashlight was part of the equation). But, then again, I had never encountered a book as compelling, interesting, insightful, complete, readable, and downright beautiful as The Field Study Handbook by Jan Chipchase.

In addition to being an experienced researcher and guide, Chipchase thinks deeply about the ethical and moral implications of this kind of research.  In a Medium article, he writes:

“The rise of human-centered design and the consequent language of empathy masks a greater truth: that the intent behind the research is often not in the best interests of the people they pertain to serve.”

This thoughtfulness sets the stage for The Field Study Handbook.

The Handbook is a massive book, but it must be to incorporate so much important information. Indeed, it has:

  • 6 types of field research projects
  • 9 interview stages
  • 27 principles
  • 41 rapid calibration techniques
  • 51 exquisite illustrations (by Lee John Phillips)
  • 80+ diagrams, case studies and more

Luckily, the structure of the book both makes the material approachable and helps the reader develop a mental model of the research space.

As one would expect of a comprehensive book like this, Chipchase addresses areas that are covered elsewhere–fundamentals like the tradeoffs we make between different approaches, to researching a problem, and basic information about doing interviews. Since his entire focus is on field research, he naturally covers things that are its “bread and butter,” the most relevant, especially for a sophisticated researcher.  However, even information that many researchers would say they already know—things like how to decide where to run a study, how many study locations are needed, scheduling, logistics, and recruiting participants—are covered with a thoroughness and thought that makes us realize that just maybe we had never thought of it quite that way.

He also discusses many topics that I’ve never seen covered before, neither in books nor in courses. For instance, the elaborate description of the “pop-up studio” is worth the price of the book by itself. I have heard about his research using this concept, but had been unable to fully picture it. I cannot do justice to the entire process in a short description, but essentially, a pop-up studio is shared space such as a home or hotel where a multinational team stays together (eating, sleeping, designing, planning) usually adjacent to or in the communities the team has come to understood. The physical proximity both to other team members and to the community being understood helps a team form more quickly and to empathize more fully. Of course, the process is actually far more nuanced than this description, but the chapter would allow a researcher to understand these nuances and create a pop-up studio of her own.

There are other critical chapters as well, such as how to help a team form effectively for this very specialized process of doing field research, and managing risk, something Chipchase has learned from having many “opportunities” with police, army, guards, etc., which, I am happy to say, were largely new to me. His section on how to choose a location for a study was very interesting and matches my experience, but I hadn’t seen it written down before. The decision is the result of many factors, including the obvious, such as what markets are key to a client, and many less obvious ones that drive the choice in a more micro sense, such as this sample from his list:

  • The spaces in which it will be possible to interact with the local community
  • The nearest schools/colleges/universities for recruiting assistants, translators, and sometimes participants
  • Team accommodation options, particularly the feasibility of immersion within the community
  • The level of friction from factors such as monsoon weather, national holidays or graft
  • Whether a visa or other formal paperwork will be required

He also describes the team’s psychological responses to being in the field in very clear terms. Part of this is understanding how to manage culture shock in a team where there are both shared and individual reactions. He also describes what he calls the “Dynamics and Flow” of the research itself, which gives a good overview of the phases that the research—and the research team—go through. This is so important to managing the research (including team dynamics), but again, I haven’t seen it described so well.

And so it goes, from how to do interviews to how to deal with data, from managing risk to managing recruiting, from planning the location to planning the deliverables, from Uganda to Myanmar, from Turkmenistan to Burundi, each topic Chipchase covers he does so eloquently, and in useful detail. To accompany him on this journey are beautiful evocative line drawings by Lee John Phillips. These, along with wide sidebars with call-outs and well-spaced lines, make the book more accessible and less “weighty” than my first impression based on a typical book of this size.

Of course, even the most comprehensive book leaves some things out. For instance, Chipchase doesn’t cover Contextual Inquiry, but there are lots of books and courses to train people in that method.

As so much of his research has been in challenging places, like Afghanistan, Somalia, Burundi, Turkmenistan, to name a few, his insight is not only deep but also quite welcome, especially as more and more researchers are embarking for these or similar areas. Some of his guidance is very practical, such as the advice to have a second passport in case you need visas from incompatible countries (like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel), but not a fake passport, since this can raise suspicion that you are a spy. Other tips are more philosophical, such as when describing his own career trajectory, and how he has grown as a researcher over the years. He started his career at Nokia and then moved to frog design, where he built up the global insights practice, before founding his own company.

Although I’ve known Jan for 30 years and have been doing field research for more than 35 years, I learned a massive amount that I know I will use. I lost a night—but for a good cause.

Case Study 04: Validation & backstory to a product launch

“Are our assumptions around the new product correct? What stories can be told to position the product at launch?”

 

Location: Rio de Janiero, Brazil; Timescale: Four weeks; Client: Corporate

Stakeholders: CEO, Chief Marketing Officer

 

Team

Two design-researchers

+three local crew

+one writer

+speech coach

+presentation designer

 

Deliverable

Foundational research and validation report, storytelling assets including photo archive, speech and keynote presentation for CEO

 

The client, a US company, was planning to launch a new phone based on its nascent operating system and asked for foundational research to help validate the needs of consumers in a fast-moving segment and to generate assets that could be used as a backstory for the launch.

The team ran an intensive, quick-and-dirty two-week field study in Rio de Janeiro, utilizing local team members from a prior study run by the author. As time was of the essence, a driver was also hired full time to minimize wait times. A report was delivered that provided a foundational backdrop and validated the premise of the product. (The research findings could have contradicted the central premise, and naturally we would have reported that if it were true.)

The study generated contextualized insights and hundreds of high-quality photos, including the rights for the client to use materials in the public domain.

It can be challenging to make sense of data and to put findings into perspective in such a short period of time. The research team spent a couple of days holed up in the rainforest, as part of the sensemaking process with long walks and discussions. The natural environment served as a counterpoint to the intensity of the urban work.

In the second phase of the project, the CEO’s keynote for the launch event was written and produced using assets from the research to enrich the backstory. C-suite keynotes can take months to put together and are usually a team affair, in this instance with a writer, speech coach, presentation designer, and input from internal experts and stakeholders. Access to the CEO is limited to short time-slots. A C-suite keynote goes through dozens of iterations, and is often edited just prior to going on stage, as the team react to events, partnership changes and other announcements.

Given that the project was tied to a launch event, there was no expected or actual follow-through with the client once the foundational report and keynote were delivered.

Dray, S. (2019). How to Conduct Field Research Anywhere (Book Review). User Experience Magazine, 18(1).
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