Field Observation


Field observation means going to the users’ place of work and directly observing them using the product under test. It affords the opportunity to learn about the users’ on-the-job tasks and to see how they use the product in their day-to-day activities. It also allows one to learn about their mental maps for the product. For technical communicators, field observation is a good way to see if the metaphors and maps used in the product documentation align with the maps that the users have for the product. Field observation has a distinct advantage over lab-based testing in that it is not in an artificial environment, but rather it occurs where the users work, with all of the accompanying information, aids, and distractions.

To get the best results, you should make field observations with a variety of users at a variety of sites in a variety of industries. Relying on only one industry or one type of user might provide misleading results.

The object of a field observation visit is to collect as much data as possible. You want information not only about users’ direct use of the product, but also about the environment in which that use occurs. You are looking for what the anthropologists call artifacts and outcroppings.

Artifacts are all of the objects in the environment, such as notes, wall charts, documents, notebooks, post-it notes, home-made job aids, etc. Technical communicators should be especially sure to note all artifacts that users employ when using the product under test, particularly those that the users have created themselves. When users create their own documentation artifacts, it is often a sign that the product documentation was lacking in some area.

Outcroppings are the characteristics of the site itself: the size and shape of the room, the layout of the building, other objects in the space, other uses of the space, seating arrangements and relationships, communication methods used, etc. Outcroppings can often provide valuable information about users’ mental models and about the context in which they use your particular product.

There are two schools of thought about how obtrusive you should be during a field observation. One says that you should be as unobtrusive as possible so that your presence does not change the way users normally interact with your product. The other says that you are there to collect as much information as possible and that you should ask detailed questions of the users. The ideal is to observe at first and then interact more intensely with the users.

When you are at the site, you want to record notes and get copies of as many artifacts and outcroppings as you can. You should label each of them as to its location and its use. If possible, take photographs of the site or at least draw sketches of the environment, with notes about pertinent artifacts and outcroppings. Your job on the field observation is to get as much data as possible, so don’t try to analyze too much while you are there.

Field observation is valuable at any time during the development and design cycle. It is especially valuable for technical communicators in the earliest stages of design, as it will help you learn about users’ mental models for a product so that you can match the documentation to those models. The site characteristics might also help technical communicators decide which types of documents or online systems to provide.

Purpose Yes/No
Usefulness Yes
Efficiency No
Learnability No
Attitude Yes


Nielsen, J. Usability Engineering (Academic Press), pp. 207-208.

Kane, Kate, “Anthropologists Go Native In The Corporate Village,” October/November 1996, Fast Company magazine.

Macht, Joshua, “The New Market Research,” July 1998, Inc. magazine.

Wixon, D. , and Ramey, Judith (Eds.), 1996, Field Methods Casebook for Software Design, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, NY. ISBN: 0-471-14967-5.

Last modified: Friday, January 13, 2012, 5:09 PM