Field Research - The magic rules


Getting out there

The value of understanding the context you design for can make or break your output. The field work we do as part of our design research, is an essential part of people-centred design and systems thinking. 

We need a set of solid practises to do it right. In all my years of doing design research and taking teams into the field, it has never seized to amaze me how valuable it is. The difference it makes cannot be understated. 

How do we connect to those contexts? You have to get up and out. Here are my 4 most important rules of user engagement and field work:


Listen, really listen!

Be present, listen and engage in conversation. Don't read from a list, don't read from cue cards, follow up on what people say. Ask open ended questions and ask about what you don't know. Ask respectfully and pay attention to the answer. Go deeper. If you are already on to your next question on a list or a set of cue cards, you loose the connection and you loose potential valuable information. Have your note taker keep track of pre-outlined questions instead. 


Check your emotions

Don’t be emotional, be curious. Empathy is not about you getting overwhelmed. If you get noticeably emotional it becomes about you. Gently observe your personal reactions in the situation and save the potential outlet for later. Give people their space to show how they feel. Their emotions are information, you are there to do a job. Hold that and them in respect.

Often we are in sensitive situations doing field work, be professional. Inform yourself about cultural differences. Investigate the potential contentious issues or conditions beforehand. Don’t be afraid to dig deep and expose your own lack of knowledge of their situation, use that as an open line of questioning. Be personal, warm, open and kind, but don’t get emotional. Not to their face anyway.

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Document everything! 

Take pictures. (if you asked for permission and got it) Film. Record sound.

This is needed to validate findings and connect the design team, internal organisation and external clients to key opportunity areas. We need to connect emotionally and with our senses. Minimum team: one interviewer listening and engaging, one note taker. Use a tripod to film interviews if you can. Have the tech melt into the background, usually people freeze up if a big lens is showed in their face, preferably you wish to document natural situations. Use a good camera phone or more high-end equipment if you will. Film and document as people demonstrate their habits and actions. All of the team take pictures. 

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Under the hood
- advise on the inner mechanics 

You are bringing you to the context. It doesn’t matter if you are C-Level or the research team. Out there, we are all equal - strive to be that as much as possible. You bring your personality as well as your particular focus; maybe you want to develop a new product, maybe you want to redesign a service, my advise is to remove any blinkers as you meet your context. Open up. You’re in a unique position to connect to the source of how your design is created and/or put into action. If you set aside your specific agenda for a moment and widen your scope, you might be surprised what you find and what new dots you might connect. Doing this is a mental exercise people find hard to do, possibly get someone experienced on board to hold the team in this. 

Field work done right is exhausting to do as you are present with all of you. If you are not depleted afterwards, you haven’t engaged at a level that grants deep insights. In my opinion. You are a person meeting other people. They invite you into their situation and the more you connect, the more you’ll learn, therefore the more value you’ll be able to bring back. 

If I’ve learned anything over the past 25 years, it is that people want to connect. Use that for good. 

The process of field research is even parts structure and improvisation. When you do improv theatre you learn to flow with the curveballs thrown at you. If you do that, if you say yes to what happens during your field interaction, you put yourself in pole position for getting to the root causes and the potential of place. 

You need to educate yourself to inform your questions before you venture out, and then be brave enough to let go and rely on yourself once you’re in the setting. You’ve got this, remember how curious you are, tap into that. Stay even-kilter, don’t filter, once you get back to base camp or the office, is when you start downloading and clustering your insights, moving yourself and the team into data analysis and synthesising. 

A great design researcher knows the design process, uses psychology, is attentive, sensitive, openhearted, explorative, inquisitive, as well as professional, structured, analytical, a powerful communicator and creative. 

Get out there!

Don’t be afraid to get dirty.... Just go! Suck up the reality of your context. Participate. 

You will learn so much more than from your desktop.


..... really... get outside and immerse yourself! It will make a difference to your market share. I've taken a good number of executives into the field, teaching them about the value of connecting with and understanding their user base, and with no exception, they all arrived at valuable new business opportunities.

A regenerative perspective

My advise to anyone intending to innovate, be it to get new ideas, attack a specific challenge or re-design already existing solutions, is to not fall in the trap of becoming stuck behind the desk. Or even worse, just design for yourself or answer directly to the assumptions of your shareholders. I talk about design with a solution oriented, market meeting, community building, biodiversity restoring, future proofing scope. Exactly as broad and general as that sounds.  

For example, you produce household goods in Europe. At the at the forefront of your supply chain there is a producer, a processing facility, a community, a landscape, and at the end of your sale you have a consumer, an audience, someone to receive and interact with your design. By connecting to those nodes, and blueprinting the entire journey of your design within the circular economy framework, we get a rich foundation for sustainable product value and longevity. You can’t do this work without engaging with the contexts of production as well as consumption. 

Any design; commodities, products, services, etc, that need to cross or bridge the vast ocean of supply chains, has several contexts worth exploring for a succesfull design outcome. If you have chosen to design responsibly, you have to design for the entire life cycle of your design. If you want to create sustainable design you have to parttake in responsible sourcing. I push for an agenda where the sourcing context is a naturally included part of making the design succesful. Working with SMEs, producer organisations, CSOs, and local Governments in Central America, has taught me how to include their reality into design considerations. Local regenerative practises can be put into system to accommodate the global market movements. 


I practise and teach field research within the context of discovering the unique potential of a place, leading to new ideas, concepts and business cases. 

I’ve done this type of work for more than 2 decades, initially by doing social entrepreneurship designing projects in social and cultural settings as a KaosPilot, later I worked with anthropologists in countries like Brazil and Mozambique doing extensive fieldwork with the purpose of documenting the lives of the locals, after my design degrees, the method of design thinking crystallised the usefulness of how the people-centered design engegement process leads to lasting design solutions. 


Contact me if you’re interested in design research, or if you need a teacher or consultant on how to do it. Any process is bespoke, every ask, every context is different. 

We will go do deeper into, (possibly including, and not limited to); 

How we plan for a succesful process befitting your scenario
How we activate the creative, explorative mind
How we use our senses, especially how to finetune observation skills
How to hone in on your context
How to uncover the potential of a place instead of finding problems
What sense of place is
How we understand the uniqueness of a place. arriving at a sense of place. 
How to differentiate between types of users and how to plan for engagement
What good interaction etiquette is
What outcomes to expect
What good interview techniques are
What good note taking techniques are
What not to do during engagement
What a good insight is
What to look for in a setting
How to cluster your findings
How to structure complex data
How to make sense of big datasets
How to synthesise the research and identify most impactful findings
How to create photo stories
How to create impactful storytelling
How to package and communicate your findings

The next steps (in large brush strokes) : concepts, scenarios, blueprint, craft & design, prototype, test, refine, implement. 

Apart from conducting research  and leading teams in the field, I offer executive training as well as teaching students the design research process, typically through a mix of lectures and hands on exercises, preferably with a test context.

Feel free to reach out for a chat. 

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