Takeaways from Jan Chipchase’s Field Research Masterclass


When you have the opportunity to add new methods to your UX research toolkit, grasp that opportunity with both hands!

When I joined Clearleft last year the bar for research was set high; very high. Working alongside Steph Troeth and the UX team I was given the opportunity and freedom—encouraged, even—to try new research methodologies, approaches and tools as well as honing my existing toolkit.

Since then I have grown curious about the benefits of mixed methods and broader skill sets that give a deeper understanding of people’s motivations and needs. The world of behavioral economics has led me to cognitive biases and psychology effects that have proved to be another highly useful set of heuristics for decision making.

But in an agency environment, budget and time constraints can sometimes limit the reach of our research. Traditional lab-based usability studies and street-level intercepted guerrilla tests have been our UX research bread and butter for quite some time. Although remote interviews and contextual inquiries might enable us to speak to people in the comfort of their home or work spaces, we seldom get the opportunity to go deep and gain first-hand experience in true ethnographic detail.

To satisfy this hunger for a richer world view of ethnographic research, I attended Jan Chipchase’s Field Research Masterclass, a single day workshop that forms part of the Clearleft Presents{:target="_blank"} series. Here are some of my key takeaways.

Workshop takeaways as a design researcher


A clear thread of leadership emerged early on in the workshop. Jan’s hands-on approach to building a team was an open, democratic process built on a bedrock of mutual respect.

One example of ensuring equal status within the team is the upside down principle. Traveling together as a team means relocating many times within a research study. At each new accommodation the rooms must be divvied up. Jan’s approach is to flip the traditional top-down hierarchy on its head by giving the most junior team member first choice of the selection of rooms. This continues with each subsequent relocation, each time moving up the experience ladder.

If you’ve been involved in conducting a research study you’ll know it’s an emotionally intense and cognitively draining process. Part of Jan’s approach to counter this is to reserve a proportion of time and budget for decompression. Its purpose is for the team to relax and recuperate as people. The choice of location and accommodation is team-led, not dictated, and is—crucially—a team activity. Here, Jan cleverly uses the peak end rule to leave his team ending on a high.


As curious practitioners we invariably experiment with our processes at each new opportunity. This might be with a new methodology, tool or team shape. In order to learn from these experiments we need time to reflect on what did and didn’t work. Most important, we need time put these learnings into action. At the beginning of the workshop Jan broke down the research timeline and proclaimed the activity of “the application of insight” as wisdom. This valuable phase of iteration extends to our own processes too.

While we, as researchers, should be striving to hone our processes, we shouldn’t be a slave to them. Interview script run-throughs help to flag issues with timings and the general flow of discussion but it can’t prepare you for that moment with your first participant where the conversation takes you to an unexpected insight. This is where Jan differentiates process (good) and art (great). Knowing when to go off-script—and having the confidence to do so—can be the difference between good and great insight.


Toward the end of the workshop, three brave volunteers partook in an exercise in memory, through which Jan demonstrated how our recall diminishes at an alarming rate. This becomes troublesome for research studies structured with large gaps in between analysis.

If time erodes evidence, then we should be reducing the latency for sensemaking as much as possible.

While the workshop was aimed at international ethnographic researchers, I left with a deeper appreciation of team leadership, a fresh outlook on process, and a great responsibility of the evidence I collect.

For more info on Jan’s work, side projects, and The Field Study Handbook check out his website{:target="_blank"}.

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