Is your product really as good and useful as you think it is? Do you really know who who's buying your product? One way to find out is by going into the field and observing your customers firsthand. Watching people in a retail store, for instance, may shed some light on how they manage shopping lists and purchase items on impulse. Field studies are one of the various qualitative methods that market researchers use to better understand customers' needs and wants.

What's key is that the work that field researchers conduct takes place in the participants' environment—such as a home, work, store, bank, or hospital. "Researchers can gain a lot of insight on how a product or service actually plays out in an individual's life," says Patrick Glaser, director of research standards for the Marketing Research Association, which publishes a directory of research service providers in its Blue Book

Participant observation, interviews, and video data collection are examples of field research. "A new more leading edge technique involves observing social networking sites, such as Facebook or Twitter," says Glaser. "Even though the researcher isn't physically in the field, they are observing real life information flow and how people communicate," he explains. For example, a company like Procter & Gamble might invite their customers to join a proprietary community to get a sense of what people think about their products or a particular ad campaign.

The findings of field studies are based on realities, not perceptions. As a result, design teams can get much closer to their customers. If you are developing a new product it is a good idea to do some field research, says Elisa Galloway, president of Galloway Research Service, a full-service marketing and opinion research firm headquartered in San Antonio. You may think you can't study people because your product idea is so new, but you can observe and test your targeted customer base using the product or even using a competitor's product if you want to do comparative analysis, she adds.

Field research also is good to use when you are redesigning a product. Chances are, your customers have some frustrations with the current product, says Kate Gomoll, president of Gomoll Research & Design, a Milwaukee-based consulting firm. Using a field study, "you may discover that the redesign is solving the wrong problem or that there are parts of the old way of doing things that work pretty well so you should hang onto them."

Gomoll adds that "field research is quite powerful because it allows you to see what people do as opposed to hearing what they have to say. What people say rarely matches what they do." For instance, your customer may tell you something is easy to use, but when you actually observe them doing that task in a field study, you can see all of the problems and inefficiencies they didn't recall or couldn't articulate, she explains.

The biggest downside to field research is the cost, which could run $10,000 or more. Still, the value of information gathered today can help with the future growth and development of the company.

Here how to embark on the field research process.

How to Conduct Field Research: Assembling a Team of Key Stakeholders

The first step is to put together a team of key stakeholders—that is the people in your company who are going to care about the research and buy-in to utilizing the results. This group typically includes people from upper management (preferably the CEO), sales, marketing, and the development or design team. Get them involved in how to plan, set up, and run a field study, advises Gomoll, and make sure that they have a say about the criteria for recruiting participants. "Before we conduct any of the field visits, we gain agreement from all the key stakeholders about the sites and the people we visit, so that when the data rolls in, nobody is telling us, 'You visited the wrong people.'"

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How to Conduct Field Research: Recruiting Your Customers for the Field Study

To prepare for the field study, once those you want to visit have been identified, you have to determine what tools you'll want to use to capture the data. Typically, two market researchers will conduct all of the visits. Each researcher will have special tasks, such as note taking, photography, video and audio capture, or observing specific parts of the process.

What are the characteristics of the target participants, asks Galloway. You need to answer key questions such as how many different user groups are in your target market; how do you distinguish one user group from another; and how greatly do you think the usage patterns and preferences will differ among each user group? A user group may be broken down by geographic location, demographics (i.e., age, gender, income) or role. "If I were doing a usage test for diapers I might be looking for women that had babies who were a certain size," says Galloway. In healthcare, one user group might be physicians, another nurses and a third front office personnel.

"Don't go out and try to just get star users—meaning those customers who really like your product," suggest Gomoll. "Visit people who may have stopped using your product or have complained before about your product." Ideally, you want five to eight people within a user group or segment. Work with your sales, marketing and customer service departments to identify people who fit your target profile. Possible sources are customer registration databases, sales lists, surveys, and social media networks.

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How to Conduct Field Research: Conducting a Typical Site Visit

The objective is for field researchers to efficiently observe and interview your users to gather the most pertinent data. They have a variety of tools at their disposal depending on the site location, including iPads, BlackBerries, video recorders, web streaming, digital cameras and livescribe pens (a combination ballpoint pen and recorder which allows you to upload data to a computer). A typical visit with a participant will last up to two hours.

"We spend the first part of our visit briefing participants about the goals of the study and how we are going to use the data, explaining about the confidentiality and having them sign a consent form," Gomoll says. "As we watch the user, we capture the steps, constraints, and tools needed to accomplish key tasks and any social interactions that take place. We also note any process inefficiencies or opportunities for improvement. We come with a set of questions we want to ask. We may do the interview during the observation or wait until afterwards if it is going to interfere with them doing the task."

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How to Conduct Field Research: Analyzing the Data and Communicating the Results

Researchers should document visits as they go along and provide incremental reports to keep stakeholders apprised of the study's progress. A quick report right after the site visit might summarize the observations and responses made for a participant. It might include stories and photographs about that participant's experience. At this point this is not analysis but just a record of what took place on site.

During the actual analysis, researchers look for answers to key questions about a product or service. You are analyzing solid user data to paint an accurate picture of "what is" and to brainstorm about "what could be," Gomoll says. "We look at all of the data and try to find patterns in the data."

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How to Conduct Field Research: Presenting the Results for Maximum Impact

The entire process depends on the scope of the study but can take anywhere from six weeks to six months. The final stage is for researchers to report study results and make recommendations relative to the client business' goals and strategies. When a study is complete, researchers will make the results available in PowerPoint presentations, on internet sites, in written reports, or stand-up displays. Researchers may illustrate their findings using storyboards, user data posters, photo collages, videos, user profiles, and/or workflow diagrams to create convincing, useful deliverables. Presentations should be powerful yet easy to grasp.

"We develop sets of one-pagers that can be used in many ways," says Gomoll, who has conducted user research for various companies, including Apple Computer, Charles Schwab, GE Healthcare, Hewlett-Packard, DirectTV, and Yahoo. "We create before and after views. For example, we often document our process observation in storyboards, showing the steps of the process and highlighting current inefficiencies, frustrations, or problem areas. Then, we create a new storyboard showing how we could perform the same process after we make changes. We can also construct before and after views using timelines, flowcharts and scenarios." Seeing both what is and what could be side by side is a compelling way to illustrate product (or service) improvements.

The qualitative process should never be used for complete decision making, Galloway says. "It really is a glimpse at what people think about your product or service." She explains that a company's key stakeholders will want to take field research data and turn it into something that helps guide the design team in finalizing a new product or resolving an existing product's problems in accordance to customers' preferences.

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