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Positioning Field Studies for Company and Customers

Getting Started Within Your Company

The mantra for usability practitioners is “know your users”. Similarly, when proposing field study research, it is important to understand who you are “selling” field study research to—who are the people holding the key to unlocking the resources, schedules, and budget required for the research activity to occur. Understanding this audience allows you to create persuasive arguments to gain their support and keep them interested and engaged in the discussion. It also increases the likelihood of obtaining resources and financial backing for your project.

The task of gaining support for field study research may be formidable depending on the scope of your project. Large-scale field study initiatives may require support from multiple levels in the organization (for example, directives from upper management executives, support from middle management, and cooperation from individual employees,) and from numerous divisions within the company.

When proposing field study research to executive management, first identify their priorities and discuss the benefits within the context of these priorities. For instance, if executive priorities are centered on customer satisfaction and its effect on the bottom line—sales and revenue—then position field studies as a mechanism to build and foster the customer relationship. If the priority for upper management is operational effectiveness, discuss how field study data can streamline product development by reducing ambiguity, providing clear and concise requirements early, and eliminating churn and indecision during development. Additionally, remember that upper management has limited time and a large organization to manage. Keep the conversation at a high level, but be prepared with details if asked. Try to leave the executives with the answers to what you want, the cost (in time, resources, money), and the return on investment for the company. Chances are they won’t give you an immediate answer to your request, but if you leave them with a clear sense of your proposal, they are likely to respond favorably.

When proposing field studies with product managers and marketing managers, think about their primary responsibilities and concerns; they need to specify and prioritize product requirements to meet the customer and market needs. Be sensitive rather than antagonistic about how they determine requirements. Offer field studies as a complementary method that primarily yields user requirements regarding interaction designs and usability criteria rather than business and functional requirements. For example, if the requirement is to have email functionality, the field study research would provide insight on users’ current experiences and expectations for email, which would help specify users’ functional and interaction requirements. Field study findings provide necessary information that will later facilitate discussions and mitigate conflicts during development and construction of the product. The data also helps with prioritizing requirements and specifying designs to ensure a highly usable, quality product.

Engineering teams have the burden of building the perfect product. They want to ensure the product they commit to building is truly meeting customers’ needs. Include engineering in field visits; it provides engineers with a rare opportunity to directly observe users and see how their products or similar products are being used and implemented. It offers a glimpse into whether the product is being used as intended, how it has been extended and improved, and any shortcomings. This insight is invaluable and a good reality check for engineers; the value in field studies is well-defined product requirements and use cases, which leads to less churn on product specifications and user interface designs. Engineering is always faced with schedule pressures, thus is sensitive to factors that may extend timelines and supportive of measures to minimize schedule disruptions. Field studies should be positioned as requiring time early in the schedule, but providing a depth of data that reduces time spent revising requirements and design specifications during the construct phase. Additionally, if scope changes are necessary as the project progresses, field study data helps inform decisions about the trade-offs and consequences to the user.

Getting to the Customers

Now that you have gathered support from inside your company, it’s time to identify and recruit customers to visit and observe. With B2C (business-to-consumer) products, it is a matter of determining the objectives and contacting consumers directly to arrange for visits. With B2B (business-to-business) products, identifying and recruiting customers may be more involved; you may need to convince partner consultants, third party vendors, and customers before gaining access to end users to observe.

As with all research activities, involving the appropriate participants is crucial. Participants need to address your research goals to ensure their input is valued. You do not want anyone to question the findings because the proper user group was not studied. Depending on the nature of product release, there are different user types you want to observe. For example, if the product is entering into a new industry, then the users would be non-customers. If the product is being enhanced and sales revenue is expected from current customers upgrading to the new version, then you want to target those customers. You will need to work with different people within your company to access the various user types, and you will need to develop a value proposition for each to gain access to their customers.

The sales team builds and enhances customer relationships for future sales deals, especially with high revenue generating customers, or those with potential for an upgrade or cross-sell. Field studies should be positioned to the sales teams as a tactic for fostering customer loyalty and a demonstration of individualized customer care. Provide sales with examples of positive perceptions customers will have following the field studies.

If the primary focus for the next product release is refining the existing product and addressing known issues, tap into the customers through customer service and technical support. They are well aware of the product shortcomings and have direct access to customers experiencing the most difficulties. Pitch field studies to customer service and technical support organizations as a mechanism to improve product quality and increase customer satisfaction.

Customer Value

Regardless of whom you work with to determine customers for site visits, it is important to create a value proposition for the customer. Place yourself in the position of the customer and think about the questions customers would ask: Why would the field study be important to me? How is it a valuable use of my time and my employees’ time? What are the benefits to me? Access to customers’ employees is not easy as there may be perceptions that you would be intruding on their employees’ privacy and time. Customers may fear the field study would distract employees or reduce productivity. Be sure you understand the customers’ perspectives and come up with compelling benefits before contacting the customer. For example, participating in a field study allows the customer to voice their requirements early on and is an opportunity for the customer to make their employees feel empowered because they can be involved in the definition and design of the products they use. Again, it is important to develop messages that align with the customers’ core values and alleviate their concerns. Be upfront and clear about expectations, time commitments and duration of the activities, and determining deliverables the customers may expect in return for their time and participation in the field study.

Analyzing and Communicating Findings

The ultimate goal of research is to make a difference to the product design. The best way to assure findings are applied is to give people data they’re interested in. Do not overwhelm them with the minutiae. Analyses and reports need to be tailored for the various recipients. Avoid the academic style of traditional reports, and make the report memorable and easy to comprehend. Focus on getting a few key points across to the appropriate recipients. Present the findings using formats appropriate for each group. Use marketing terms, (“Top Ten Findings”, “Myths and Realities Exposed”) to make your points memorable.

Observational data may be analyzed to provide a list of improvements they can make to the current implementation of the product. This provides some short term, easy fixes for immediate improvements. Additionally, customers may be interested in seeing a summary of how the latest version has resolved some of their issues, and which issues the company should consider when upgrading to the next release.

For the user experience team, the data are analyzed to produce the usual deliverables, such as user profiles, task analysis, wants and needs analysis, and user interface design requirements.

For the sales team, the results may lead to targeted selling. It’s possible to provide the sales team with specific selling points to encourage customers to upgrade (a summary of customer’s current issues may help them sell an improved version) or provide insight on customer needs and where an additional product may be offered to fill that need.

For the cross-functional product team, which includes—but is not limited to—product managers, marketing managers, the engineering team, quality team and documentation, field studies provide real customer usage scenarios for prioritizing requirements and determining solutions. A detailed context of how users interact with the product provides a vivid view of the users that is indispensable during product design and development. It provides data that may be referred to throughout the product development cycle to make informed decisions and to understand the consequences to the end user when making trade-offs.


Field studies provide benefits to many groups—users, managers, sales, marketing, and support staff. By understanding and communicating these benefits, you can maximize your ability to undertake such studies and the effectiveness of the deliverables they produce.