A3: Conduct Field Research

Designers not only need to be creative, they need to become experts on the problems they are exploring. Field research provides an opportunity for you to make connections between your online research and first-hand evidence. In this assignment, you will work as a pair with one other student (ideally someone who has been exploring a related sub-issue within your chosen topic space) to conduct two different types of field research. You will summarize your insights and share them with the class.

Learning goals

  • Gaining experience with human-centered research methods (eg., observation, interviewing, surveys, empathy exercises)
  • Understanding how to choose the appropriate method for a given design problem
  • Synthesizing field research into a summary that highlights a key challenge or opportunity

Optional reading/resources

What to do

Students can pair up for this assignment and we will devote time to this in class in Week 2. Ideally you should find someone who explored a similar topic as you for A1 and A2, but that's not a strict requirement. One or both of you can pivot away from your initial problem research. The goal of this assignment is to develop a more grounded understanding of a problem and to empathize with people affected by the problem.

As a team of two people, you must complete two of these options for field research (e.g., observation and interviews). As a pair, choose two of the following forms of data collection:

  • Observations: Conduct at least 3 hours of direct observations of the civic challenge you decided to focus on while taking note of cultural norms, social behaviors, information sharing, pain points, and any other evidence that could expand your understanding of the challenge. If you chose a Mobility challenge that would be difficult or impossible to directly observe, you should choose different methods for data collection. We cannot observe self-driving cars since they are not on the streets, but you could observe how people interact with public transit, or study particular intersections or areas of town. If socially acceptable, record short videos or gather other evidence that you can use as part of your report. Typically public spaces are fair game for recording video, but private spaces require permission from the individual(s) you will be recording. Please use discretion and ask the Prof or TAs if you have any questions.
  • 3+ Interviews: Recruit at least three people who will help you gain insight into your civic issue (i.e., not your roommate or best friend). Experts can provide invaluable insights because they have already studied and thought deeply about these issues, however, they are typically very busy people. Another option is to interview residents who are or could be affected by your chosen civic challenge. To prepare for this method, check out the D4SD guide to cultivating stakeholder relationships and see these examples of recruitment/introduction emails. Start sending out recruitment requests ASAP. Teams should write an interview guide with 8-10 open-ended questions, but be prepared to followup with additional questions as they arise during the interview. These can be conducted in person or through phone/video chat. Interviews should be conducted by both teammates (so that one person can ask questions and the other can record and take notes). If you want to record audio, make sure to get permission by the interviewee to make an audio recording. Include important quotes in your report.
  • Online survey (with N>20 responses): Prepare and deploy a survey using a standard survey tool like Google Forms or Survey Monkey. Keep the survey relative short, but include both qualitative and quantitative questions. Be intentional about who and how you recruit participants to fill out the survey, especially if you are targeting a particular demographic or stakeholder. You might post the survey to online special-interest forums or ask local contacts that you identified in A1 to share with their local network of contacts. Ask for survey respondents emails in case you want to ask followup questions or ask for feedback later in the design process. Make sense of the survey results through descriptive statistics and thematic analysis.
  • Empathy exercise: Create an experience for yourself that helps your team build empathy for the primary stakeholder(s) at the center of your inquiry. For example, your team might want to simulate the conditions for a person with special needs taking public transit (e.g., one team member wears a blind fold to get on/off a bus while the other teammate provides support and takes notes). As another example, in order to empathize with the problems associated with the "last mile" challenge—especially if you current drive all the way to campus— try parking near a transit terminal and taking the public bus or bike to campus. There are a wide range of exercises you can try for this type of data collection; just get input/feedback from the instructor or TAs beforehand!

Then as a team, you will write a short summary that reports on your process, key evidence, and main insights after doing field research. The summary should make a strong argument for further exploring a key challenge or opportunity. To support your argument you may embed photos, quotes, sketches, graphs, or observations that came out of your field research. At the end of your summary, include a list of citations and links to your team's raw evidence (e.g., video clips, observation notes, interview transcripts, survey results, etc.). There are no length requirements (min or max), but make sure to include your names on the first page of the PDF.

One teammate should write a brief Slack post that introduces the field research summary and attaches the PDF. For example, "My partner Jane Doe and I looked into the challenge of ...XYZ using a combination of interviews and empathy exercises. One key insight is that we need to figure out XYZ aspect of the problem. Read more in our attached field research summary." The field research summary should be posted as a PDF document into the appropriate Slack channel. For example, if your field research focuses on parking, you could submit your report to #2020-mobility-last-mile.

Finally, you and your partner should look at the field research summaries submitted by other teams. Each team member should pick one other team report related to your topic to read and add a comment (as a reply thread) that compares and contrasts your own findings with the other team's findings.

We expect each teammate to spend 5-6 hours on this assignment.


  • A field research summary as a PDF (no max or min length specified) attached to a Slack forum post that describes your field research process, data, and insights. Make sure to highlight a key challenge or opportunity using your field research data as evidence. Include your full names as well as a comprehensive list of citations and pointers to raw field data.
  • A forum post on Slack (~200-300 words) that briefly introduces your field research summary and includes the PDF as an attachment. Post this in the channel that most relates to your selected problem area by Friday Jan 31 at 5pm. This is now due at the same time as the A4 Problem Report. You may post these in the same Slack message as two separate documents.
  • Each teammate should find and read one other team's reports (ideally related to your own) and comment on it. Your comment can reflect on the clarity and importance of the problem, additional data or insights that can help the team, and/or how the other team could complement/combine with your own team. Your comment on one other team's field research summary and problem report should happen before class on Tuesday Feb 4.

Grading rubric

Grades will be on a 10-pt scale (10% of total class grade) based on the following:

  • Does the team meet the basic requirements outlined above and conduct extensive field research on their civic topic?
  • Does the team choose appropriate research methods for their particular civic topic?
  • Does the team include effective and valuable questions in their interview / survey; does the observations/empathy exercise provide rich data?
  • Does the research contribute to a deeper understanding of the civic topic?
  • Does the team effectively summarize the field research and identify a key challenge or opportunity?