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Into the Field: How We Meet Users Where They Are


Usability labs are great. They are controlled, comfortable spaces where study participants receive the same set of questions and the same set of tasks in the exact same context. Usability labs ensure consistency across a study, which minimizes bias and chance and makes it easier to identify tease out major design flaws.

What you don’t learn in a usability lab is how effective a product or service is in the real world. You miss seeing how a small button is difficult to tap on a smartphone while a bus is bouncing down a highway. Or understanding if your signage really does help someone find a busy medical center’s orthopedic department when they’re running late to their doctor’s appointment.

A field study is a methodology in which researchers go to the locations where the users are – or to borrow from anthropology: into “the field”. Field studies are usually much shorter than a lab-based usability study and can be an efficient way of finding and interacting with many users. The folks you talk with didn’t know they were going to be study participants when they left the house that morning, though, so it’s important to respect their time. It's reasonable to ask them for 5-15 minutes of their time; it is wishful thinking to ask for 60-90 minutes.

When We Go Into the Field

Researchers in a store at a table with test items and a subject
Anthro-Tech researchers at REI testing a mobile interface for Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife.

At Anthro-Tech, we view field studies as a great way to inspire robust design solutions for challenges that are heavily influenced by the environment in which they occur. For tasks normally done at one’s leisure in the home – such as figuring out a monthly budget, scheduling a dentist appointment, or online shopping – field studies are not as imperative. But it isimportant to go where the users are when environmental factors and physical factors influence how they find and interact with a design. We have experience with many types of audiences, from studying the visually impaired in their homes, to going to college campuses to interview students, to conducting research in WorkSource offices in Spanish with agricultural workers.

We rarely use field studies as the only input when helping clients solve a design problem. Like red wine and cheese, this type of field research pairs well with an in-depth survey of user behaviors and preferences (when possible). At Anthro-Tech, we choose and implement research methodologies strategically to ensure we are comprehensively addressing our clients’ design challenges.

User Respect

We always keep the user at the focus of our work, and we demonstrate this at many points during a field study. When approaching people, we signal trust and authenticity as much as possible. We often wear our client’s logo and strive to answer every question a potential participant might have. We do not want prospective users to feel uncomfortable. If they don’t want to talk to us, we respect their decision and quickly move on.

We ask for written consent from each field study participant . We provide plain-talked consent forms outlining the purpose of the study. We do not take up more time than our participants want to give. They are generous enough to agree to participate; if they have only 5 minutes, that’s great! We’re happy to learn what we can.

Finally, we always provide honoraria as a thank you. We value users’ time and opinions and believe in demonstrating our gratitude – and the gratitude of our clients – through some small form of compensation. We try to make the compensation relevant to the project: metro passes for a transportation study; a gift card to the cafe in a hospital for a wayfinding study; a gift card to the shops users are in during retail field research.


We’ve conducted many field studies that have had lasting effects for millions of users. Below are just a few examples of some of the field research we’ve conducted over the years:

Legacy Salmon Creek Hospital

Anthro-Tech partnered with Legacy Salmon Creek Hospital in Vancouver, Wash., to help improve wayfinding within the hospital complex for patients, staff, and visitors. We observed visitors as they navigated the hospital and asked follow-up questions about the experience. This research informed signage and kiosk design, content and placement.

Sound Transit Ticket Vending Machines

Person using an ORCA ticketing machine
Anthro-Tech researcher Camy Naasz prepares an interface for user testing.

We undertook a project to help improve the ticket-purchasing experience for regional transit users. The team spent time at LINK light rail and Sounder train stations across the region, observing, interviewing, and learning from public transportation riders to redesign the ticket vending machine interface, placement, and signage.

Washington State Department of Transportation Ferry Research

We partnered with the Washington State Department of Transportation to test out a new online reservation tool for Washington State Ferries. Researchers spoke with riders at ferry terminals across the state.

Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife Website Redesign

Working with the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife, Anthro-Tech recently asked for feedback on an early website prototype with shoppers at Cabela’s and REI. Patrons of these stores are highly likely to check the WDFW website for statewide outdoor recreation rules and regulations.

King County Elections

Anthro-Tech worked with King County Elections to improve its website and help citizens better understand voting mechanics, candidate platforms, the voting process, and election results. Researchers spoke with folks who had been summoned for jury duty and were waiting in the courthouse assembly room, and they watched as users interacted with a website prototype.


We pride ourselves on being data-driven researchers. Our research insights help inform design solutions for our clients. Field research is a critical part of any research plan that seeks to understand how users interact with a given product or service when environmental factors are at play. If you don’t observe users in-context, you run a very real risk of missing some crucial design constraints. Field research is also one of the most effective and efficient ways to find and interact with target users. We love talking to users wherever they may be so that we can bring this type of rich qualitative data to our clients.