• Wendy Castleman

8 Things You Can Do On A Site Visit

Updated: May 23, 2019



Site visits (aka Contextual Inquiry) are an amazingly rich source for customer understanding. We typically go on site visits when we are trying to understand how people are accomplishing tasks now (whether it is with our solutions or something else), what their main pain-points are in a given area, opportunities for innovation, inspiration, and to gain a better understanding of our customers.

Certainly, the best interactions with participants are when they show us their processes and talk about their issues. However, there are times when it can be difficult to get customers to give us those rich ​

experiences. For example, sometimes participants don't think their process is important or interesting. Here are a few techniques to try that can kick start richer conversations and a deeper understanding of the people you visit:

Take a tour - have them walk you around the site and explain it to you. This works really well as an ice-breaker at the beginning of a visit. Sometimes, people are somewhat disconcerted by this request. Just reassure them that you are interested in knowing a little more about them (or their business). Have them show you around and take note of the things you see and what they tell you about the person. Ask your participant what they use things for, or how often they use a space. For example, if the participant shows you their formal dining room, you could ask them about when they used the room last and why. You never know what these types of tours might reveal to you about the person. You can expect to get clues to their values, the importance of various things that they use, and gain some color to better understand your participant. This activity also tends to set a good context for the site visit participants because it makes it clear that we are there to learn from them.

Object Dive - Look for the personal, unique artifacts in the environment and ask for their story. This helps break the ice and get customers willing to share. They also serve a purpose in that environment (maybe having to do with identity). Try to figure out what that is.

Desk surface Inventory - Where does your participant use their computer (assuming they use one)? Do they have a desk? If so, take a look at the surface of the desk. What is there? When people pile up papers or items, or stick post-it notes to their monitor, they are trying to save some piece of information for some reason. Usually, things on a desk are considered things that the participant needs to pay attention to or remember. Have them walk you through the objects and papers on their desk. What are the objects? Why are they there? Get into this discussion with your customer. It might open up a window for further exploration and insights.

"Desktop" Inventory - When looking at your participant's computer, what does their computer screen tell you? Files that people leave on the computer screen "desktop" can be left for a number of reasons; these are often files that the customer isn't ready to file, needs to remember for some period of time, or used for "working" space. Much like the desk surface inventory, understanding what people leave on their computer desktops can give you insights and open the door for deeper discussions. What does the desktop background look like? Do they have a picture? If so, ask them about it. Have them walk you through each of the icons on the desktop and tell you what they are, what they use it for and maybe when was they used the file last. You can do the same thing with their mobile phone, though it requires a more intimate gathering around the device.

A day in your life - have the participant walk you through their typical day. You can map this out as a timeline of activities, or as a map of where the person is in their space throughout the day. If the participant usually comes into the office in the morning, grabs coffee from the kitchenette, goes to their computer and checks email, walks to the FAX machine to check for incoming orders, then to the store room to pull items from inventory... well that might be pretty interesting. Seeing how people are moving through their site and what they are trying to accomplish can give you insights into how to streamline processes, unveil hidden pain-points or opportunities to delight. It is really great to take advantage of being in their site to see how they use it.

People/Relationship Map - Ask them to identify the people they interact with in the day (or better yet, observe in the corner), then ask them to map out who they are and the role they play in their day.

Show me something - A fun activity to try as an icebreaker that can give you ideas about what your customer values, likes and dislikes, is to have them identify various things in their environment that reflects those values. Tell the person to think about things in the site, including on their computer. Then ask them to show you things. Ask them to show you something: "frustrating", "fun", "important", "painful", "delightful", "challenging", "unique" or other terms. With each thing, have them explain it to you and why they chose that. For example, if you ask the participant to show you something "fun" and they show you a golf club, ask them why they identified it as fun... you might learn that one of their passions is golf, that they spend every Thursday afternoon playing, and that they are getting ready to participate in a local competition. This information can help you better understand your participant, but can also help you build a relationship that might encourage them to share more with you as the session proceeds. You can tailor this activity around the thing you are interested in studying. For example, if you are studying payroll customers, you might do this activity around payroll. "Show me something important about payroll", "Show me something fun about payroll"... you might stumble across something really interesting!

Action Tally - Identify the activities that you see them do (or others in their environment) and count them. This is particularly useful if you are able to spend a good deal of time observing them and if the actions they take are likely to be short. For example, if you observe how many times they greet customers who walk in the door, how many customers walk in the door over that time, how many customers they served, how many times they smiled, etc., then you might be able to recognize patterns in outcomes related to interactions with customers.

BONUS 9th Thing: Talk with others in that environment about their perception of the customer (particularly around the area that you are most interested in. Sometimes spouses have deeper insights than people have of their own behaviors and motivations.

This was an updated version of a post from 2008.


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