Field Studies vs Usability Testing: Which Is Better?

Feb 14, 2022 | User Research, User Acceptance Testing

Usability is essentially the measurement of a product’s usefulness from the users’ perspective. In principle, usability can be segmented into three fundamental elements: efficiency, effectiveness, and user satisfaction. 

As a research methodology, the lack of usability testing during the development of a product often leads to user dissatisfaction and rejection. Another research methodology that serves a similar purpose of ensuring product utility is a field study. 

What is the difference between field studies and usability testing?

Field study encompasses all studies of users in their natural environments (usually conducted in the user’s context and location as opposed to your office/lab). 

For example, homes, workplaces, neighbourhoods, parks, streets, and shops. Essentially, localities and areas in which one’s product might eventually be utilised are the best places to conduct these studies. 

On the other hand, usability testing evaluates a product by directly testing it with representative users. 

During a usability test, participants attempt to complete typical tasks while testers/observers watch, listen and take notes. 

Overall, the core goal of usability testing is to identify usability problems, collect qualitative and quantitative data to determine the participant’s satisfaction with the product.

conducting remote online usability testing on laptop

When to choose a field study? 

Field studies deliver a complete, unbiased picture of what prospective users actually do with a product. They provide context, especially if a product is designed to function in a particular context. 

In such instances, conventional lab testing might not give you accurate results. So, when your usability research cannot fit in a lab, you may need to carry these out. 

Furthermore, field study is well suited for practical products. For instance, if a device is engineered to function as a core component of the navigational system of an oil tanker. Then visiting the oil tanker for final testing makes sense. 

Some of the examples of field studies include user’s office/home visit, ethnographic research, and contextual inquiry. 

How to conduct a field study? 

1. Preliminary planning 

This period involves working with participants. You don’t necessarily require a specific set of research questions but defined study topics. Field studies are strictly observational, as researchers aim to be as unobtrusive as possible. 

2. Direct observation

This part of a field study involves watching users critically observe how they behave and why. Ideally, the test subjects do not care that you’re watching, and act exactly as if you are not there. 

3. Participant observation

Here, the researcher can join the group of people being studied and records data as field notes or diary entries, after finishing observations for the day.

Benefits of field studies in UX design

Field studies enable you to understand your users in-depth, under realistic conditions. Field studies also allow you to discover social defects and understand environmental factors before releasing products.

Generally, field study advantages can be summarised as:

  1. It yields highly detailed data.
  2. It emphasises the role and relevance of social context.
  3. It can help uncover social facts that may not be immediately obvious or that research participants may be unaware of.

In person field work study usability testing on mobile app

Potential pitfalls of field studies in UX design 

The key disadvantage of field studies is their expense. Furthermore, most field studies can’t usually be automated or sped up with technology. This is because they typically rely on old-fashioned theories of patience and observation. 

Additionally, if your study design requires a large number of observers, then a field study might not be ideal. Similarly, if your product is to be used in rare, unpredictable circumstances (for example, first-responder mobilisation after an earthquake), then you can’t do a field study.

Further, if your study involves collecting sensitive, confidential information, you might require the more controllable circumstances of a user research lab.

When to choose usability testing?

Usability testing is ideal when: 

  • Seeking to uncover any issues within your design, workflow, or process.
  • Validating if a design works for participants – especially if there is debate on a project team about how something is ‘utilised by users’.
  • Seeking insights into both good and poor issues with an interface.
  • Seeking different perspectives and mental models on an interface.

You can choose to conduct usability testing:

  • Before significant design decisions are made.
  • In high-risk, low-certainty situations.
  • When it’s time to evaluate and iterate.
  • After product launch.

Benefits of usability testing in UX Design

  • Improved user experience and the product utility.
  • Discovery of hidden usability issues.
  • It ensures that the application’s functionality matches the requirements.
  • It identifies changes required to improve user performance and satisfaction.
  • Helps to analyse product performance to determine if it meets the defined usability objectives.

Disadvantages of usability testing in UX design

  • There is sometimes uncertainty about what to test
  • There can be testing fatigue
  • There is sometimes too much feedback gathered

Field Studies vs Usability Testing Cost

Field studies are expensive and can be highly time-consuming. This is so because of the need to travel, the number of hours researchers are required to commit, and the complex analysis that open-ended, unstructured research dictates.

On the other hand, usability tests are relatively inexpensive and easy to conduct, especially if conducted remotely. However, some of these can only be conducted in a specially designed laboratory, enabling facilitators to interact with, and observe users. Such tests can involve some cost, but they will still be cheaper than field testing.

Conclusion

In summary, usability testing is an inexpensive means of gathering valuable feedback from representative users. 

In contrast, field studies allow user researchers to gain first-hand experience and knowledge about the users and the processes they study.

The article is a part of our comprehensive guide on “Usability testing”.

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