Over 5 years ago I emptied the contents of my fieldwork bag in a blog post of the same title. Today, I find myself updating it for a chapter of USERPALOOZA — A Field Researcher’s Guide.
Those of you who read the 2012 version might recognise a few things have changed…
So, what’s in my toolkit?
Every band needs a manager to book the gigs and a roadie to set the stage.
During fieldwork I’ve rarely had the luxury of a dedicated videographer, and often been operating solo. This means I need to play both manager and roadie roles, but I isolate these activities as much as possible from my role as researcher.
Every minute spent with a customer is valuable, so I can’t afford to be distracted by practicalities like recording equipment and timings.
After a few years experimenting with these practicalities, I’ve curated a toolkit in my backpack, so when I pull up at a field site the roadie can take a back-seat and let me get on with capturing the conversation…
1. Discussion guide
A one-page topic list rather than scripted questions.
2. Smart pen
This researcher’s best friend. Records every word as you write then plays back the audio from those moments. Like magic, but called Livescribe. Here’s a detailed article about how I use a smartpen to free my mind and eyes during user research.
3. Microphone options
Shotgun directional mic. plus wireless lapel mic. for when there’s background noise, or when you’re in super quiet environments, like hospital wards.
A basic 2–4 footer for working off the floor, and a shorter, bendable tripod — easily shaped into a handle when you need to ‘walk and talk’ with a participant. Both are fitted with the same quick-release mount for easy switching.
Used after sessions to type up reflections while they are still fresh. Drive down the road first … best they don’t see you frantically typing about them from behind their curtains.
In-car USB and charging blocks for boosting devices between sessions. Spare batteries and mains chargers. The time you leave them behind will be the time you need them.
7. Video camera
My workhorse is a Sony handycam, pimped with a beast of a battery, quick release mount, capacious data card, shotgun and wireless lapel microphones.
Hard copy or online map of the city/area with all the day’s participants located. Earns its keep when there’s a schedule change and you need to know whether you can actually make it from A–B in the timeframe, and
to figure out what neighbourhood you’ll be in or near when it’s food-o-clock.
Who, when & where? Usually a pared-down, today-only version, with the full version stashed electronically in case I need phone numbers, etc.
10. Stills camera
Palm-sized and unobtrusive. Quick to boot-up and usable by ‘feel’ alone (real buttons) with one hand. Passable as a secondary video camera (best if set to the same resolution).
Backup/second fiddle for logistics details, maps, image and audio capture, plus alarm for keeping on time, voice to text for brain-dumping thoughts between sessions.
12. Smart/casual clothes
Dress up or down to match the topic, client and neighbourhood. Smart enough to be credible, casual enough to be approachable, and never authoritative. Let your partner know the dress code and match it.
13. Audio recorder
A reassuring backup to smart-pen and video recordings. Usually the best audio to transcribe from.
14. Rental car
Small & discreet. I try to park out of sight of the address and appear to arrive on foot. … unless I’m in a rural area, where the ‘hobo’ interviewer look might arouse suspicion.
Some or all of: consent/receipt/image release/NDAs to be signed by participant.
16. Cash incentives
In envelopes for each participant’s time and involvement. If you’re paying different amounts, name each envelope to avoid awkward moments.
The most important things, of course, can’t fit in your backpack;
Two, two, one (eyes, ears, mouth), curiosity, awareness, respect, instinct, composure, judgement and others.
‘better to leave the entire pack in the office than hit the field with just one of these missing.
… but did I miss anything else?