There are many ways to go about conducting user research. From qualitative, quantitative to attitudinal and behavioural, approaches to gaining user-centric insights for your product/service are multifold.
Purpose of field research
Before embarking on field research, being clear on the goal and motivations behind your product/service will help you make more informed decisions on the right research approach.
Field research is ideal if:
- You have limited information on your target audience
- Access to your target audience is limited
- You have a hypothesis to test
- Your product/service is focused on human behaviour and routines in a specific environment
- You’re proposing something for vulnerable, off the radar communities
- Your product/service is affected by weather conditions in a different geographical location
The Patatas, a social innovation company under Potato Productions, made several visits to ‘Tiwala Kids and Communities’ in the Philippines as part of the implementation of their digital education project Digi-Eskwala and CaseStudy.
Digi-Eskwala marked The Patatas’ foray into the digital education industry. Utilising tablets with preloaded content, Digi-Eskwala aims to make learning more interesting through interactive and gamification methods.
And CaseStudy, the new and improved version of Digi-Eskwala, was created from observations and insights the team picked up over the years by observing and understanding how Digi-Eskwala evolved over time.
The team worked with ‘Tiwala Kids and Communities’ for over a year to pilot their digital education products. Even though they entered field research with what they thought was a ready product, the process provided them with valuable field insights and observations they wouldn’t have picked up back in the office.
That’s what field research is all about- Continuous development of your product/service with direct user reactions in mind.
What can you expect from field research?
Providing the cultural and contextual juice of your theories, field research places you in the realities of what you’re tackling. In the process, you’ll learn more about the community and world around you while reflecting on your product/service offering.
Field research can help create meaningful products, but marginalised countries have many external considerations that may affect field research.
i. Challenging what you know(or don’t know..)
As you set foot onto the field, the pre-existing plans and goals you set might change completely. What works best for you theoretically and in a controlled environment may no longer work on the ground. It’s important to be able to think on your feet and adapt quickly to change.
As Helmuth von Moltke, the Elder Chief of Staff of the Prussian army before World War 1, said “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”
Establishing a system
We know, didn’t we just say things will change so why create a system right? A system acts as a blueprint, creating a trajectory for your research.
Prior to the field research, the team should draft out overall goals and objectives.
If you’re redesigning a product/service, the goal could be to assess which features should be kept or changed through user’s interaction.
If you’re testing something new, the usability of it could be the main goal. Observing user interaction with your product can provide insights into the practicality and overall user experience(in their environment and context), too.
If you’re in the midst of ideation, observing the behaviours of your users to find out what they need could be the main goal.
Even if you deviate from it due to on the ground circumstances, there is something to connect the findings back to.
Acknowledging varied observations
On the field, team members rely on individual observations and experiences when engaging with the community. As each individual’s encounter can vary, a platform for members to gather and share their findings/observations should be implemented.
A breadth of findings from varying perspectives can help identify various pain points and behavioural patterns of end-users.
ii. Empathising with the community
Having travelled all the way to the location for field research - likely in a rural and remote area, many considerations come into play. Seasonal weather, traffic conditions, local diseases such as malaria, acceptable cultural behaviour, language barriers, security and safety issues and other logistical roadblocks are likely to surface during the fielding process. Even simple things such as having an adequate water supply for the day can be overlooked.
During Digi-Eskwala’s pilot program, the team realised many factors which could affect the successful implementation of the product. The classrooms that they visited had poor infrastructure and were extremely vulnerable to natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, floods and typhoons. The team even experienced such inclement weather conditions first-hand!
Additionally, the team noticed uneven terrain and narrow lanes during their trip, which could be a hindrance for education on the ground. These factors pushed the team to design CaseStudy to be housed in a waterproof and shockproof case that had a small footprint and was extremely portable for the community’s convenience.
Environmental conditions aside, they had to understand the difficulties faced by the staff on the ground. The first being transportation - travelling with items such as mobile routers, projectors, a laptop and up to twenty tablets in a single backpack. These were cumbersome for the Tiwala teachers to ferry between locations, especially when they needed to squeeze into tightly packed jeepneys to reach their destinations.
Acting upon these observations, The Patatas modified the unit to be more compact and able to be easily set up in various locations without complicated logistical issues.
iii. Trust and reliability
Imagine going up to someone who grew up in a slum, with little to no technical knowledge and expecting them to accept your latest digital innovation. Who wouldn’t be apprehensive? To worsen things, what if they spoke a different language?
Trust takes time to build and can only be attained through sincerity and genuineness in your actions. If it means embarking on several trips to build trust with the community, ensure your timeline, budget and resources can allocate for it
Prior research and networking
Contextualising your research
Gathering research on the user/community prior to field research can do a great deal for self-education and familiarisation with the community beforehand. The information can be a conversation starter at field research interviews and may even explain the way of life in the area of interest.
Depending on the nature of your product/service, getting buy-ins from organisations and institutions can assist with easing initial contact with the community. (It could be an opportunity to clinch funding for your project as well!)
The Patatas were fortunate enough to forge a partnership with Tiwala Kids and Community for their projects, making interactions easier.
“You need to ensure that your point of contact remains the same for the foreseeable future.”
Maintaining a long term partnership with an organisation, through the same contact, eases implementation processes due to friendship and familiarity with the individual.
“If they leave, we would have to rebuild trust with another person from the organisation and reiterate everything we said previously.
That is why you need to find out how trusted this point of contact is with the communities or in the organisation they are working with. ”
Janan Loh, Chief Operating Officer at The Patatas
Before embarking on your field research, expect to make return trips as you learn more about the community. Even after getting all the information you need, you’ll likely need to make return trips for check-ins or troubleshooting.
Field research is like tango, a back and forth process of understanding user needs, reiterating and troubleshooting. Sometimes, reiteration cannot be done on the spot or additional resources are required from the office.
Even after a product/service is successfully implemented, there can be unexpected hiccups. Some may require you to return, while others may be easily resolved remotely. Not forgetting, users needs and preferences change according to market trends or naturally over time!
A few weeks after The Patatas completed CaseStudy’s pilot program, they returned to Tiwala(for a week) due to corrupted software.
“We attempted to replicate their steps back in Singapore so we could find out what the problem was and fix it remotely. But no matter what we did, we could never replicate it.
So, we decided that we had to send two of the staff back to the Philippines for a week. They observed what the ground staff did, identified the problem, resolved it and ensured they updated the system so it would not arise again. And this solution was pushed to all units to make sure nobody would encounter this problem in the future.”
When leaving your product/service in the hands of your users, it is only natural that they might encounter difficulties or bugs. As creators of your product/service, you should remain accountable and troubleshoot issues.
How do I know if the community needs assistance?
Giving the community your time and an avenue to reach you (and vice versa) can be one way to assure the longevity of your product/service- especially after the gruelling trips!
At The Patatas, an internal system to remind the team to conduct scheduled check-ins with the community and/or end-users is in the works. Where possible, the team returns to the community to measure the success of Digi-Eskwala/CaseStudy. If not, the team sends out yearly reports for the Tiwala school teachers and other partners to share the effectiveness of their product.
After returning from field research, don’t forget all about it! Conduct a team-wide ‘After Action Review’. Look at everything to see how it went. From the packing, moving out, deployment, engagement etc. Did it mess up? If it did, can we fix it? If it did not, can we make it better? But do not just focus on the project, the deployment team is of higher priority.
Things such as the moving formation of the team are just as important as your project. As the saying goes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The deployment process might very well inspire some of the improvements to your product/service.
Field research may seem like a long and daunting process, but if we could summarise it:
Ask questions, understand what they need and not what you think they need, remain accountable and seek opportunities.
Seems to be a fitting mantra for field research. Bearing this in mind, let the waves of field research take you- but never lose sight of why you started in the first place. All the best and have a blast!
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