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field study research design

What is Field Research: Definition, Methods, Examples and Advantages

Field Research

What is Field Research?

Field research is defined as a qualitative method of data collection that aims to observe, interact and understand people while they are in a natural environment. For example, nature conservationists observe behavior of animals in their natural surroundings and the way they react to certain scenarios. In the same way, social scientists conducting field research may conduct interviews or observe people from a distance to understand how they behave in a social environment and how they react to situations around them.

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Field research encompasses a diverse range of social research methods including direct observation, limited participation, analysis of documents and other information, informal interviews, surveys etc. Although field research is generally characterized as qualitative research, it often involves multiple aspects of quantitative research in it.

Field research typically begins in a specific setting although the end objective of the study is to observe and analyze the specific behavior of a subject in that setting. The cause and effect of a certain behavior, though, is tough to analyze due to presence of multiple variables in a natural environment. Most of the data collection is based not entirely on cause and effect but mostly on correlation. While field research looks for correlation, the small sample size makes it difficult to establish a causal relationship between two or more variables.

Methods of Field Research

Field research is typically conducted in 5 distinctive methods. They are:

In this method, the data is collected via an observational method or subjects in a natural environment. In this method, the behavior or outcome of situation is not interfered in any way by the researcher. The advantage of direct observation is that it offers contextual data on people management , situations, interactions and the surroundings. This method of field research is widely used in a public setting or environment but not in a private environment as it raises an ethical dilemma.

In this method of field research, the researcher is deeply involved in the research process, not just purely as an observer, but also as a participant. This method too is conducted in a natural environment but the only difference is the researcher gets involved in the discussions and can mould the direction of the discussions. In this method, researchers live in a comfortable environment with the participants of the research, to make them comfortable and open up to in-depth discussions.

Ethnography is an expanded observation of social research and social perspective and the cultural values of an  entire social setting. In ethnography, entire communities are observed objectively. For example,  if a researcher would like to understand how an Amazon tribe lives their life and operates, he/she may chose to observe them or live amongst them and silently observe their day-to-day behavior.

Qualitative interviews are close-ended questions that are asked directly to the research subjects. The qualitative interviews could be either informal and conversational, semi-structured, standardized and open-ended or a mix of all the above three. This provides a wealth of data to the researcher that they can sort through. This also helps collect relational data. This method of field research can use a mix of one-on-one interviews, focus groups and text analysis .

A case study research is an in-depth analysis of a person, situation or event. This method may look difficult to operate, however, it is one of the simplest ways of conducting research as it involves a deep dive and thorough understanding the data collection methods and inferring the data.

Steps in Conducting Field Research

Due to the nature of field research, the magnitude of timelines and costs involved, field research can be very tough to plan, implement and measure. Some basic steps in the management of field research are:

Field Research Notes

Keeping an ethnographic record is very important in conducting field research. Field notes make up one of the most important aspects of the ethnographic record. The process of field notes begins as the researcher is involved in the observational research process that is to be written down later.

Types of Field Research Notes

The four different kinds of field notes are:

Reasons to Conduct Field Research

Field research has been commonly used in the 20th century in the social sciences. But in general, it takes a lot of time to conduct and complete, is expensive and in a lot of cases invasive. So why then is this commonly used and is preferred by researchers to validate data? We look at 4 major reasons:

Examples of Field Research

Some examples of field research are:

Advantages of Field Research

The advantages of field research are:

Disadvantages of Field Research

The disadvantages of field research are:


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Field studies.

Summary:  Field research is conducted in the user’s context and location. Learn the unexpected by leaving the office and observing people in their natural environment.

By Susan Farrell

on 2016-10-23 October 23, 2016


It’s difficult to identify gaps in one’s own understanding . Reading and discussing issues with other UX professionals and subject-matter experts can help; but, especially when designing new things with new technologies and capabilities, it’s best to begin by taking an open mind to where the action is.

UX researchers are responsible for learning about users, their goals, challenges, and activities, and for bringing that understanding to the organization. Lab-based studies and analytics can help only to the extent that you ask the right questions and look in the right places for the right data. Studying users and tasks in context can inform design decisions and can put the focus on outcomes, not features . When you notice gaps in your knowledge or understanding, it may be time to get out of the office and investigate, watch, and learn.

What Is a Field Study?

Definition: Field studies are research activities that take place in the user’s context rather than in your office or lab .

The range of possible field-study methods and activities is very wide. Field studies also vary a lot in terms of how the researcher interacts (or doesn’t) with participants. Some field studies are purely observational (the researcher is a “fly on the wall”), some are interviews in which the questions evolve as understanding increases, and some involve prototype feature exploration or demonstration of pain points in existing systems.

Examples of field studies include:

Field research is usually done with one of the following goals in mind:

When to Leave the Lab for the Field

Any of the following are good reasons for running a field study:

When You Might Want to Use Other Methods

If money were no object, we would probably all do much more field research. Unfortunately, field methods have not become cheaper at the same rate as other usability methods, and they can be challenging to budget or schedule. Field studies are still worthwhile, for example when you’re researching how and whether to make a new product, but it’s best to gather as much data as possible with cheaper methods. Beyond reasons of resource constraint, you might decide to stay out of the field in certain other cases.

Research in the Lab or Office

It’s sometimes best to conduct in-person research in labs, conference rooms, or other spaces that are not where people normally do the activity you want to study. For example: When what you are testing or researching is particularly confidential , sensitive, or private; when you have many observers for the research sessions; when you need to record but you can’t do that where participants work; when you’re testing systems or prototypes; or when the research focus is mainly on the usability of the system , rather than on people’s context, nature, and situation.

Remote, Attended Usability Research

UX researchers can get some of the advantages of both field and lab studies by conducting research live, using various audio–visual tools, with participants and facilitators each in their chosen locations. The remote, interactive approach can often be cheaper and faster than field or lab studies. Everyone avoids expensive and time-consuming travel to unfamiliar places. Being in your own space also offers comfort, familiar tools, and convenience.

A tradeoff with remote research is that you can’t see what the user’s camera doesn’t show you. That missing context is often important when you are trying to understand people and their environment.

Remote, attended studies make sense: When your participants are all over the map , and traveling to meet in person is too difficult or expensive; when it’s important to get some specific answers quickly and cheaply, and you already understand the people, tasks, and contexts in depth ; when you need to conduct sessions a few at a time , for example when testing early designs with only a couple of users for each iteration.

How to Plan a Field Study

Make a research plan .

Location. Decide where best to observe people in action . Go where your potential users are most likely to be found: workplaces, schools, shopping centers, airports, and so on.

Assistance. When applicable , work with an ally onsite . When visiting a business, for example, you might need help recruiting, scheduling, reminding, rewarding, and briefing participants. An onsite helper can escort you, introduce you, and help you with equipment or space issues. You may need to get permission in advance to conduct research in public or commercial spaces.

Participants . Study people who are representative of your target audience groups. Depending on the research method you use, you might need a professional recruiter or a team member to help you screen and schedule people.

Observers . Decide whether to allow stakeholders to watch. Although it’s often strategically important and desirable to involve stakeholders in observing user research , it’s not always possible with field studies.

Sometimes observers won’t fit in the space, or they would make the research situation too intimidating or otherwise create a weird situation for the users. When that happens, you won’t get to observe the most natural behavior and you might not get the candid information that you need.

On the other hand, with B2B site visits to customer companies, it’s common for stakeholders from both companies to want to be present for the research sessions to some extent. Sometimes outside researchers can’t be left alone with participants, so observers must be present. Observers often need a place to sit, talk, and work through issues raised in your debriefings. Observers may also need guidance in how to observe and how to help collect data , so they won’t behave badly .

When you encounter problems or behavior that you don’t understand around existing products or services, field studies can help you take a step back and find a new perspective, in order to correct your own mental models .

Doing research where people are can be crucial to understanding whether new products and services will help, hinder, or fall flat for the people you aim to assist. Set aside assumptions and allow insights to reframe what you’re creating and how that will affect the experiences of the people you’re designing for.

(We can come to your team and teach a full-day course on how to conduct ethnographic field studies in your UX projects.)

About the Author

Farrell joined All Turtles, an AI product studio, in 2017, where she leads UX Research and Strategy for chatbots and smart-device systems. She was previously an early member of Nielsen Norman Group, from 1999-2017, where she consulted with dozens of companies —  multinationals, government, open source, and early startups — regarding website and mobile device usability, interaction design and information architecture. She conducted the User Experience Careers survey, co-authored the E-Commerce User Experience research series, conducted accessibility research for the Usability Guidelines for Accessible Web Design report, and contributed to many other NN/g research reports.

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How to Conduct Field Research Study? – A Complete Guide

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There is a challenge in undergoing a research which involves a vast understanding of the environment and the study of subjects staying in that environment. Although the outcome of this study will help fill in the gaps evidently seen in the literature but the process involves a lot of planning. How does one plan such a humongous research study?  In this article, we will discuss how to conduct a field research and what are the different methods used to streamline the field study !

Research is much more than performing the experiment and analyzing results. It involves gathering raw data and understanding the subject of research in its environment. These type of researches are more elaborate and are the reason for producing real information on a large scale.

Table of Contents

What is Field Research?

Field research is a process where data is collected through a qualitative method. The objective of field study  is to observe and interpret the subject of study in its natural environment. It is used in the field of study of humans and health care professions. Furthermore, it connects theory and practical research study by qualitatively analyzing the data.

Why to Conduct Field Study?

Field study allows researchers to identify and observe the subjects and helps draw correlations between subjects and surroundings, and how the surroundings may influence the behavior.

It gives an in-depth information on subjects because they are observed and analyzed for a long period of time.

Field study allows researchers to fill the gaps in data which can be understood by conducting in-depth primary research.

How is a Field Research different from a Lab Research?

Different methods of field study research.

field study research design

There are four main types of methods for conducting a field research .

1. Ethnographic Field Notes

This type of field work is particularly associated with field work that records and analyzes culture, society or community. Most commonly this method of research is used in social anthropology, societies and communities.

2. Qualitative Interviews

Qualitative interviews give researchers detailed information. This vast information is segregated in order to make inferences related to the sample group. This data is gathered by conducting interviews either informally, conversationally or in an open ended interview.

3. Direct Observation

Researchers gather information on their subjects through close visual observation. The researcher can record the observations and events as field notes holistically without a guided protocol. This form of research approach is termed as unstructured observation. However, in a structured observation the researcher uses a guide or set protocols to observe people and events. Furthermore, in direct observation the observer is detached and does not obstruct the research setup. It does not work as an alternative method for conducting field research , and rather works as an initial approach to understand the behavior of the research. This type of method is extensively used in fields of sociology and anthropology wherein the researchers focus on recording social life details in a setting, community, or society.

4. Participant Observation

In this research method, the researcher takes part in the everyday life of the members chosen for observation. This gives the observer a better understanding of the study. Additionally, these observation notes are a primary type of data which the researchers later develop into detailed field notes.

field study research design

Steps to Conduct a Field Study

1. identify and acquire researchers of the field.

It is essential to acquire researchers who are specialized in the field of research. Moreover, their experience in the field will help them undergo the further steps of conducting the field research .

2. Identify the topic of research

Post acquiring the researcher, they will work on identifying the topic of research. The researchers are responsible for deciding what topic of research to focus on based on the gaps observed in the existing research literature.

3. Identify the right method of research

After fine tuning the research topic, researchers define the right method to approach the aim and objectives of the research.

4. Visit the site of the study and collect data

Based on the objectives, the observations begin. Observers/Researchers go on field and start collecting data either by visual observation, interviews or staying along with the subjects and experiencing their surroundings to get an in-depth understanding.

5. Analyze the data acquired

The researchers undergo the process of data analysis once the data is collected.

6. Communicate the results

The researchers document a detailed field study report , explaining the data and its outcome. Giving the field study a suitable conclusion.

Advantages of Field Study

The major advantage of field study is that the results represent a greater variety of situations and environments. Researchers yield a detailed data analysis which can be used as primary data for many different research hypotheses. Furthermore, field research has the ability to find newer social facts which the setting or community and the participants may be unaware of. Most importantly, there usually is no tampering of data or variable, as data is collected from the natural setting.

Disadvantages of Field Study

Various methods of field study involve researchers conducting research study and immersing themselves on the research field to gather data. This collection of data can be expensive and time consuming. Moreover, the information acquired is usually undertaken through observation of small groups and this may lack understanding and implications to the larger group of study.

Did you ever conduct a field research? How did you find the process? Which type of field research method did you use? Let us know about it in the comment below.

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Table of Contents

What is field research.

Field Research is a method of collecting qualitative data with the aim to understand, observe, and interact with people in their natural setting. It requires specialized market research tools . The goal is to understand how a subject behaves in a specific setting to identify how different variables in this setting may be interacting with the subject. Field research is used most in the field of social science, such as anthropology and health care professions, as in these fields it is vital to create a bridge between theory and practice.

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Methods of Field Research

There are 4 main methods of conducting field research, and they are as follows:

Ethnography is a kind of fieldwork that aims to record and analyse a particular culture, society, or community. This method defines social anthropology, and it usually involves the complete immersion of an anthropologist in the culture and everyday life of the community they are trying to study.

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      2. Qualitative Interviews

The goal of qualitative interviews is to provide a researcher with a breadth of information that they can sift through in order to make inferences of their sample group. It does so through interviews by directly asking participants questions. There are three types of qualitative interviews; informal, conversational, and open ended.

     3. Direct observation

This method of field research involves researchers gathering information on their subject through close visual inspection in their natural setting. The researcher, and in this case the observer, remains unobtrusive and detached in order to not influence the behavior of their subject. 

     4. Participant Observation 

In this method of field research, the researchers join people by participating in certain group activities relating to their study in order to observe the participants in the context of said activity. 

Steps to conduct Field Research

The following are some key steps taken in conducting field research:

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Reasons to conduct Field Research

The following are a few reasons as to why field research is conducted, typically via market research tools :

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Examples of field research.

The following are real studies conducted using field research in order to answer questions about human behavior in certain settings:  

Advantages of Field Research

No tampering of variables as methods of field research are conducted in natural settings in the real world. Voxco’s mobile offline research software is a powerful tool for conducting field research.

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Field research.

Field research is a qualitative method of research concerned with understanding and interpreting the social interactions of groups of people, communities, and society by observing and interacting with people in their natural settings. The methods of field research include: direct observation, participant observation, and qualitative interviews. Each of these methods is described here. Terms related to these and other topics in field research are defined in the  Research Glossary .

Direct Observation

Participant observation, qualitative interviews.

Direct observation  is a method of research where the researcher watches and records the activities of individuals or groups engaged in their daily activities. The observations may be unstructured or structured. Unstructured observations involve the researcher observing people and events and recording his/her observations as field notes. Observations are recorded holistically and without the aid of a predetermined guide or protocol. Structured observation, on the other hand, is a technique where a researcher observes people and events using a guide or set protocol that has been developed ahead of time.

Other features of direct observation include:

Participant observation  is a field research method whereby the researcher develops an understanding of a group or setting by taking part in the everyday routines and rituals alongside its members. It was originally developed in the early 20th century by anthropologists researching native societies in developing countries. It is now the principal research method used by ethnographers -- specialists within the fields of anthropology and sociology who focus on recording the details of social life occurring in a setting, community, group, or society. The ethnographer, who often lives among the members for months or years, attempts to build trusting relationships so that he or she becomes part of the social setting. As the ethnographer gains the confidence and trust of the members, many will speak and behave in a natural manner in the presence of the ethnographer.

Data from participant observation studies can take several forms:

There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to direct and participant observation studies. Here is a list of some of both. While the advantages and disadvantages apply to both types of studies, their impact and importance may not be the same across the two. For example, researchers engaged in both types of observation will develop a rich, deep understanding of the members of the group and the setting in which social interactions occur, but researchers engaged in participant observation research may gain an even deep understanding. And, participant observers have a greater chance of witnessing a wider range of behaviors and events than those engaged in direct observation.

Advantages of observation studies (observational research):

Disadvantages of observation studies:

Qualitative interviews  are a type of field research method that elicits information and data by directly asking questions of individuals. There are three primary types of qualitative interviews: informal (conversational), semi-structured, and standardized, open-ended. Each is described briefly below along with advantages and disadvantages.

Informal (Conversational) Interviews

Advantages of informal interviewing:

Disadvantages of informal interviewing:

Semi-Structured Interviews

Advantages of semi-structured interviewing:

Disadvantages of semi-structured interviewing:

Standardized, Open-Ended Interviews

Advantages of standardized interviewing:

Disadvantages of standardized interviewing:

Both standardized and semi-structured interviews involve formally recruiting participants and are typically tape-recorded. The researcher should begin with obtaining informed consent from the interviewee prior to starting the interview. Additionally, the researcher may write a separate field note to describe the interviewee's reactions to the interview, or events that occurred before or after the interview.

See the following for additional information about field research and qualitative research methods.

The content on this page was prepared by Jerry West. It was last updated March 2019.

Qualitative Study Design: Field research

Field research

To understand attitudes, practices, roles, organisations, groups, or behaviours in their natural setting

In a way you have probably done field research before – when you’ve been in a doctor’s waiting room, or on an aeroplane. Field research is at its core about observing and participating in social behaviour and trying to understand it. Qualitative field research takes these natural skills and curiosities and refines them to address and answer a research question The “field” is vast, consisting of numerous people, activities, events, and words. When undertaking field research, the researcher needs to determine the exact activities or practices that are of interest to the researcher to answer their research question. Instead of the more artificial environment of an interview or survey, field research lets researchers observe subtle communications, cues, or other events that they may not have anticipated or even measured otherwise.

Field research is often referred to interchangeably as “participant observation”. Participant observation is a type of field research where the researcher is an active participant in the everyday life, habits, or beliefs of the field alongside members. An example of this might be where a researcher goes into a hospital and works alongside hospital staff. A contrast to this is “direct observation”, a type of field research where the researcher observes members in the field but doesn’t actively participate. An example might be a researcher who sits at a hospital cafeteria and observes staff who may not realize they’re being studied.

You may be wondering what the difference is between ethnography and field research. The two terms are often used interchangeably, so it can be a really blurred line! Ethnography is about making sense of culture – it’s about making a detailed overview of the social group and organising your information. Field research is going out into the field – so describing “how” you’re going to conduct research. Ethnographical research can be field research (as in, you’re studying the culture of a hospital by observing within the hospital), or field research can be ethnographic (you’re observing staff in a hospital to see how staff handle crisis intervention). It’s a fine line between the two, and even experienced researchers can be unsure of the difference (or even use the terms interchangeably, depending on discipline), so when in doubt, it is best to talk to your supervisor or an experienced researcher in this discipline

Different studies may benefit from different degrees of researcher involvement. Ultimately, the researcher needs to be sensitive to the impact their presence might have on the data and on participants – and also aware of any ethical requirements around this study type, such as informed consent, duties to report (such as if the researcher observes criminal activities), and confidentiality and privacy of participants.

Observation, unstructured interviews


Example questions

How do student nurses integrate their training into care provision at end-of-life?

Example studies

Babbie, E. (2008). The basics of social research (4th ed). Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth


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  2. Field Studies

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  3. How to Conduct Field Research Study?

    Field research is a process where data is collected through a qualitative method. The objective of field study is to observe and interpret the subject of study

  4. Field Research : Definition, Examples & Methodology

    Field Research is a method of collecting qualitative data with the aim to understand, observe, and interact with people in their natural setting.

  5. Field Research

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    Instead of the more artificial environment of an interview or survey, field research lets researchers observe subtle communications, cues

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  8. Field Research Overview, Methods & Examples

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