Tools for Field Research

September 16, 2019

When you’re out there in the field, the right tools can help capture date in as high fidelity as possible. Tools don’t have to be fancy, they just have to work, so choose the right tools for the job.

Tools for Recording Observations in the Field

There are lots of tools researchers can use out in the field to capture data. Depending on the setting you’re studying consider these tools.

Audio Interviews 

three handheld audio recorders
Zoom H5, Tascam DR-40, Olympus DS-750

Dedicated audio recorders are fantastic for capturing any interview or focus group you’d ever need to get. They can also capture ambient audio if you need to record sounds in a room or some other environment for audio or linguistic analysis. I recommend the TASCAM DR-40 (it’s the middle one in this photo). It’s professional-grade, connects to any microphone you’d ever need, and saves sound files on a compact flash card that’s easy to plug into any computer. When conducting an interview, just place it on the table, start recording, and begin the interview—works every time even with focus groups. The photo here shows recorders with “dead kittens” on them. These reduce wind noise when outside. If you’re inside or using a good microphone, you will not need a dead kitten (but they are funny-looking). One word of caution: if you bring a TASCAM with you, don’t expect to blend in. The device shows you’re serious about audio, which is fine for a scheduled interview, but in public, it stands out unless you stash it in a bag and use a microphone.

a microphone

If you’re interviewing people, it’s unlikely you’ll need a microphone if you’re using a TASCAM DR-40 or a smartphone. But in case you want a handheld microphone to ensure there’s no noise from wind, a basic handheld like the Shure SM-58 is a good option. These are standard for concerts and work well with a handheld recorder. There’s nothing magic about the Shure, and there are many cheaper alternatives out there if you are seeking a microphone like this.

a lavalier microphone

Lavalier microphones are great for capturing one speaker. The Audio Technica AT803 is a clip-on mic that’s professional-grade and produces great quality sound. Using one of these with a TASCAM DR-40 will ensure you will have solid, clear audio from the person it’s clipped to. If you ever do interviews where you want to record yourself and participants, combining this microphone with a hand-held microphone will allow you to get clear audio. A word of caution: holding a mic to someone’s face and recording yourself at the same time may make research participants less comfortable to share openly because you will look more like a news reporter than a researcher.

Audio and Video Observations and Interviews 

an iphone

Smartphones are really handy for field research because they can record sound, still images, and video. So many tools in one neat little package. They’re especially handy for taking photos and video because they often tag this content with a GPS location which makes a precise mapping possible. If you ever need to map a location, take a photo! Smartphones don’t have great microphones, for interviews, so if it’s a windy day, don’t count on getting much out of the recording.

a goPro camera

The magic of a GoPro or any action camera is they are small and can go anywhere. Sometimes you may need to capture video or images in an unobtrusive way. Clip a GoPro to your backpack and go—easy as that. GoPros are also great because they can take a beating in any weather conditions. If field research takes you to a national park or you’re studying bicycle commuters in the rain, a GoPro could be a handy tool. Sometimes, you may want to have participants collect data for you because they go places you may not be able to go. Have a participant wear a GoPro and go about their tasks. Eventually, they’ll forget they’re wearing it and you will have a video that captures a sequence of actions that make up their day. Make sure you have plenty of batteries!

Standalone cameras still exist and are fine tools for recording video and images. Remember, the size of your camera will stand out in the field, so be aware of how much attention you bring to yourself depending on the type of research you’re doing.

Observations and Interview Field Notes

Sketchbooks and journals are still a great way to record field research. I use a sketchbook every time I do any qualitative research. Draw, write, notate, and capture as much as you can in these but also label notes with times and dates for easy reference after the fact. When conducting observations, sketchbooks are unobtrusive and lo-fi, which can put participants at ease.

Custom Notetaking and Surveys

notebooks with custom designs for surveys

If you’re conducting an in-person survey or recording a specific set of data, custom designing a notebook for recording responses can be helpful. These notebooks ensure you’ll have checkboxes, etc. to fill so recording responses is easy and consistent. Make sure to leave room for free-form notes in case something surprising comes up.

Activity Journals or Diaries

an activity log

Your research may require you to learn what participants do when you can’t be around. For instance, if you want to record participants’ TV watching habits, you probably won’t be able to sit in their living room (or car or basement or vacation home) to write down everything they watch. Much like what Nielsen does to study TV watching behavior, develop a diary notebook so participants can mark down what they do and when they do it. A simple grid with times and checkboxes can go a long way. Yes, it’s a lot to ask of participants, but when a research project requires this level of commitment, participants are probably receiving an incentive like a gift card or cash to thank them for their time.

Clickers

a handheld clicker

Much like activity journals/diaries, clickers can be simple and easy for recording the number of times someone does something. These clickers add a number to their tally each time they are clicked. To use these in research, instruct participants to click their clicker each time they do something you instruct them to record. For example, if you wanted a participant to record each time they thought about eating ice cream over the course of a day, you could give them a clicker to record these instances, then return the clicker to you the next day. Simple! (as long as they remember to do it). Clickers/tally apps are also available on smartphones or watches that may be appropriate for some projects.

Follow Through

What tools will you discover? Make your own and cater them to the research. Every project is different, so adapt tools to meet the need at hand.

dennischeatham

Associate Professor

Miami University