Field Observation


Applicable stages: test, and deployment.
Personnel needed for the evaluation:
Usability experts: 1
Software developers: 0
Users: 2
Usability issues covered:
Can be conducted remotely: No Can obtain quantitative data: No


Human factors engineers go to representative users's workplace and observe them work, to understand how the users are using the system to accomplish their tasks and what kind of mental model the users have about the system. This method can be used in the test and deployment stages of the development of the product.

Arrange for Field Visits

Choose a variety of representative users of the product, from different workplaces, industries, and backgrounds, and arrange field visits with these users. Prepare the list of questions need to be answered and data need to be collected.

Conduct On-site Observation

Use the time at the field site effectively. Try to collect as much data as possible there. Data analysis can be done after getting back to the office.

Part of field observation is inquiry; that is, interviewing users about their jobs and the ways they use your product. Part is observation; watching people use your product in the way they normally would in the course of day-to-day life.

One way to ensure adequate data collection is to identify as many artifacts and outcroppings as possible:

Both of these terms come from anthropology--some mention the term ethnographic observation, which can be interpreted as "watching people."

Post-It notes can be both artifact and outcropping.

The layout of cubicles, and location of personnel (who sits next to the boss, who sits near the loading dock, etc) can be informative as well.

Someone you consult for advice or information is neither artifact nor outcropping, but can be characterized as part of a relationship.

How to Collect Artifacts and Data about Outcroppings

"Collecting artifacts and outcroppings" sounds like you're going on an archeological dig; in actuality, it's quite similar. In the same way an archeologist looks at the pottery of an ancient civilization to determine their nutritional intake, you can find objects during your field observation that will help identify how your users use your product. Perform the following steps:

Representing the Data

When using such data to form decisions or sway opinions about design alternatives, try some of the following representations:

Group Relationships

Group relationships can help identify process and information flows. They include organization, hierarchy, informal and formal links/interactions among groups, reporting relationships, etc.

Communication Patterns

Communication patterns show who talks to whom, and how often. For communication-intensive products, such as telephony, email, or advertising, this information is vital.


When asking people how they do things, or how they're supposed to do things, ask them, "Does that work?" "Do others do things differently?" "Why?"


  1. J. Nielsen "Usability Engineering" pp.207-208, Academic Press, 1993.