Field explorations include the research activities that a design team must execute to discover what motivates users and what forces cause the current situation.


The design challenge/problem is not an isolated issue but situated in a specific context. In business-oriented design thinking, the emphasis is on investigating the needs of the inner stakeholders within this context to uncover their needs and shape the concept development to these needs to increase the value of the solutions for the user.

When you go beyond stakeholder analysis to investigate the larger field, you can develop solutions that are not only valuable but also sustainable and have a broader impact on the system. By exploring the field, the design team will consider the wider context of players involved (beyond inner stakeholders), embedded in the social, technological and cultural spaces of the problem.

For example, with a design challenge to improve social cohesion in a specific neighbourhood in Amsterdam, the team investigated the needs of the inner circle of stakeholders, notably, the local population(s), the housing association and the social workers. But a more complete exploration of the field included the impact of at least the following:

  • technologies, like the use of the mobile phone and of social network sites for communicating different cultural backgrounds and values
  • municipal regulations
  • national policies on, in this case, the finance of public and/or subsidized residences.

Although it can be difficult to get a grasp of all these forces that impact the challenge/problem, these technological and cultural spaces significantly influence the social space of the inner stakeholders and should be included in user research to develop a larger and more systemic picture of the problem.

In the Amsterdam housing example, solutions beyond simply creating benches for people to meet were created because the problem was understood at this deeper level, where a need was revealed to stimulate mutual understanding between cultural groups. A website was created where local residents could share the stories of their origins, which led to greater affiliation, bonding, and curiosity amongst people who previously had seen neighbours as mere strangers. Local residents discovered that they had similar personal origins since everyone had their roots outside Amsterdam, either in the Dutch provinces or in Northern Africa – see Dorst (2015) for the complete case study. Because the broader field was taken into account, the perspective on the problem changed from an issue of (lack of) security to a central theme of shared origins.

To gain deep insights, interviews, observations and/or participating in the activities of your user are needed. Such contextual research approaches take you beyond what you hear about the user, or what is written about them in literature, to actually see and sense what is going on in their world. This is important as there can be a huge difference between what is said and what is actually done. Seeing the user in their natural environment is crucial for developing a good understanding and insight into the subjective needs of users and/or inner stakeholders. Also focus on broader issues that might be important for understanding the current situation.

Field research aims to create an understanding of the needs of users/inner stakeholders AND discovering forces that determine the current situation. You might end up with what is called a paradox: where what people want is contradictory to the (forces in the) current situation.  Such a paradox is not to be disallowed but should help you to develop a relevant point of view.

Field research is also important for showing your case provider that you have explored the problem and, therefore, can be trusted in your results. Take as many notes as you can (using different tools/media) so that you can effectively present your work. Show that you have captured nuances of the process that may not be easily articulated in mere text.


To focus both on understanding the needs of the users/stakeholders and understanding forces causing the current situation, start with your framing question, which was meant to provide sufficient focus to your research. For the framing question, try the following format:

  • “What accounts for the current situation in [field] and what issues do [stakeholders] have here?”

Consider the following questions:

  • What is the goal of this research?
  • Who do you need to target?
  • How accessible and manageable is it (audience/location)?

Make sure that you do not transform this into theoretical/desk research. You actually must go out and try to get in touch with users/stakeholders in order to find out what the important issues are from their point of view! Then consider what kind of contextual research suits this goal and audience:

  1. Direct observation: observing the user/stakeholder in their natural environment to obtain contextual data on people, situations, interactions and surroundings.
  2. Participant observation: not only observing but also participating in the activities of the user/stakeholder to enrich your observations with personal experiences.
  3. Ethnography: an expanded observation of users/stakeholders in which you aim to also get a good perspective on the cultural values of an entire social setting.
  4. Qualitative Interviews: questions that are asked directly to the users/stakeholders. Prepare your questions in advance. Additional questions can be asked in an informal conversation.
  5. Case Study: an in-depth analysis of a person, situation, or event that is representative of a user group so that it delivers information that is also relevant beyond this specific case.
  6. Observing social networking sites: analysis of how users/stakeholders talk and reflect on topics in social media, although strictly as an additional source of data

The way you document your notes will make an impact in good field research. Do you prefer written notes in a notebook, taking pictures and/or recording videos? Each team member should understand their role.

Remember that these notes are also very important for presenting your work to the case provider and for communicating the value of your design. Keep in mind that, in the end, your field exploration should help your team in answering questions such as:

  • What is important to the stakeholders?
  • What issues (power relations, values, mindsets, technologies …) dominate the field?
  • What trends, new findings, or bright spots have you seen that point to promising approaches?