Words by Joey Alvarez-Rinconeño, Belinda Nam, and Julieanne Moore, Visuals by Addie Burgess
Your product, service, or experience doesn't live in a vacuum. Whether it's digital, physical, or omnichannel, today's product ecosystem is fluid.
Customers might see something on their social feeds, research a brand, download their app, and collect a purchase in store. This is just one pathway among hundreds.
So, is your research accounting for this flexibility in place and space? What might your team be missing if you're only capturing customer data from the aisle or the app?
These questions drove us to an approach we call Places and Spaces, which helps situate your insights practice within the lived experience of both your product and customers.
In addition to defining this useful and flexible approach, we'll outline some examples to help you get started. Adding Places and Spaces to your research toolkit should help expand the field of vision your team has, reducing blind spots and improving core product experience metrics.
Defining Places and Spaces research
Places and Spaces research is all about capturing an experience or moment in its natural setting, to see how users are interacting and behaving with what’s being researched. The approach focuses on real-life context into how users interact with an object or experience in their everyday lives, and the nuance of that experience!
It's important to remember that many different phases of research, from foundational to evaluative, can take a Places and Spaces approach. The core tenet is to think contextually: to what extent might my research question shift depending on a location, physically or virtually?
This could impact the kind of idea a customer offers in a generation session, or the moments when an experience is less usable (say if they're trying to use an app on a crowded bus compared to in the comfort of their home on a desktop).
As for which types of companies or industries might benefit from Places and Spaces, the approach encompasses a wide range of in-store and digital retailers: from your everyday goods like groceries and toiletries to less frequent but important goods like tech devices, home appliances, phone providers, and more. This means that many companies can benefit from running a Places and Spaces mission.
But, it’s not just limited to retailers. Places and Spaces allows research teams to learn about some of those difficult locations to reach from a participant who’s naturally already there.
Imagine the impact of the following research prompts for your business:
- “You’re on the go, quite literally! Show and tell us about your experience purchasing items at convenience store airports.”
- “You’re taking your dog for their yearly checkup. Submit photos of what you like and dislike about the experience and describe these experiences for us.”
- “You’re going to a concert! Show and tell us your experience scheduling a rideshare car and how that ride goes.”
- “You’re moving! Show and tell us how you organize and pack your belongings up. What type of products are you using to make this as easy as possible?”
As you can hopefully infer, there are a host of benefits to leveraging this research approach.
- Uncover moments using a product – Or document an experience that you wouldn’t have otherwise captured, because the research is being done in-context.
- See directly from your consumers and your customers – It makes the insights and findings more humanized, which helps research teams/companies create better products and services.
- See how real people navigate these “in-the-wild” activities – Learn more from them about what works, what doesn’t, and what would improve their (shopping) experience. It allows you to brainstorm new solutions.
With some baseline knowledge set, let's move to another important element of Places and Spaces research: modality. Although conducting this research in-person in the field is the traditional standard, research tooling has made remote and mobile versions preferred.
Let's discuss why next.
Why remote is best for Places and Spaces
We think remote research is good for just about any experience research practice, but as it pertains to Places and Spaces specifically, here are seven:
✔ Expanded reach
Recruiting (if your tool has that) lets you go beyond your geographic backyard. Generalizability and representativeness both increase (along with your insight confidence) if you can recruit different kinds of customers.
There are certainly accessibility implications here, as folks who identify as having a disability may feel more encouraged to participate knowing that they’ll be accommodated in their preferred environment (as opposed to asking these folks to travel to a site).
✔ Cost and time efficiency
Remote research eliminates the need for travel and logistics associated with in-person research. As a result, this can save time and reduce costs related to transportation, accommodation, and other expenses.
✔ Convenience for participants
It provides participants with greater flexibility, as they can participate from the comfort of their own homes or any location of interest. This convenience may result in higher participation rates and more engaged participants.
✔ Increased participant comfort
Allows participants to participate from the comfort of a familiar environment, such as their home, office, local store, etc. Being in a familiar setting can contribute to a greater sense of comfort and ease, which can in turn positively impact participants' willingness to share their thoughts and experiences in a more authentic way.
In addition, some participants may feel less self-conscious or intimidated without the physical presence of a researcher, which may encourage more honest answers. Remote can reduce the social pressures or biases that may arise from face-to-face interactions, allowing participants to speak more freely and openly about their experiences.
✔ Technology-enabled features
Remote tools offer unique features like screen-sharing, sharing stimuli, or even linking participants to external whiteboard or card sorting activities.
Moreover, recording is often standard for these tools, which in turn empowers researchers to capture or highlight details that might have been missed during an in-person session.
✔ Speed and scale
With fewer logistical constraints, researchers can leverage the efficiency of operations features like scheduling, transcription, and incentives processing to get more done fast. The ability to reduce costs can also help boost sample sizes or the amount of sessions conducted, increasing rigor and insight confidence.
✔ Natural context
Remote research allows participants to engage with products, services, or experiences in their own natural environments. This can lead to more authentic behaviors/responses, as participants might encounter specific situations or challenges (i.e: insights into real-life use cases) that they might not encounter in a controlled research environment.
With the what and why covered, let's close by sharing some of our favorite research designs that utilize the Places and Spaces approach.
Sample study designs
Here are three of our field-testing research designs leveraging the Places and Spaces approach. For each, we breakdown when you might use it, considerations when using it, and some of our favorite question types that maximize your insight richness and potential.
1. In-person shop-alongs
What is it?
A qualitative research method used to understand and observe consumer shopping behavior in-person. You can also observe online behavior (e.g., websites, online marketplaces)—however, in this section, we’ll just focus on in-person.
How do I approach it?
This can work with either moderated or unmoderated approaches, depending on your needs. For moderated, participants can use their mobile device’s camera to provide a real-time view of their shopping process. The researcher can observe, ask questions, and provide any necessary guidance and instruction.
For unmoderated, participants can answer different question types (open-ends, close-ends, photos, videos, etc) in a diary-style format.
Capture moments and reflect on the shopping experience:
- Before: Ask questions about their expectations. Provide detailed instructions to ensure scouts know what to do to succeed.
- During: Task participants to complete the research activity in the store, to capture unmoderated moments in “real-time.” Keep in mind, researchers will not have the opportunity to pivot/adapt any questions after it’s been launched, since it’s obviously unmoderated.
- After: A post-shopping reflection to surface anything not shared in the store.
2. Show an experience/moment
What is it?
A method to understand what an experience looks like for scouts.
While this can primarily be qualitative, it can also incorporate aspects of quant.
It can encompass so many different research questions, from
understanding how scouts use a product in real life, to documenting a
real time experience like wayfinding at an airport.
When you want to capture a specific, in-context moment that would be
really difficult to capture any other way (ie, without ruining the “in
context” setting), this is a perfect design. We always find something
interesting in the data, or an insight that hasn’t come up in other
Having participants capture the experience in a more natural setting
allows us to really see how something (be it a process or using a
product) plays out in their unique lives and environments. It’s a rare
glimpse into how something is truly being used!
How do I approach it?
This is easiest to do via unmoderated research (like a dscout Diary mission).
It’s important to have clear guidelines of what highlights you’re
trying to capture from scouts, knowing you won’t be able to necessarily
“course-correct” in the moment.
Consider if it's possible for participants to realistically capture this moment.
For example, can they record videos of what you’re asking by
themselves? Is this an experience or moment that might happen in public
that could be awkward to capture?
It's important to be upfront with participants about what you’re
hoping to capture from them. For example, if they need to share
different videos documenting how they find a taxi at the airport, tell
them exactly what moments they’ll need to capture ahead of time, so that
they aren’t surprised in the moment.
Do they need to take pictures of the signs directing them to the taxi
stand along the way, or just make a reflection video once they’ve
gotten in the taxi? Be specific and upfront about the artifacts you want
With unmoderated research, using commenting or messaging features
is a great way to get extra insights from scouts—don’t be afraid to
follow up. Did a scout submit a great entry showing their experience
shopping for running shoes, but didn’t explain how they interacted with
staff? Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask about that moment.
Sometimes, giving participants a beat to think about their experience
allows them to provide valuable insights about that moment or
3. In-home tours
What is it?
When thinking of Places and Spaces, we have plenty of use cases
asking participants to go in-store and show us these moments and
experiences in live time via videos. But we understand that these aren’t
the only locations you can do research in. Another great way is asking
folks to show us in-home tours and what products or tools they already
own and use (or don’t use) and why.
This is a great approach for mobile research.
Participants forget they're "in" a study and can focus on the aspects
of their home you're interested in. That may be asking them to show us
their organizational tools and process, their pantry and what snacks
they purchase, or how they take care of their pets. They get to be in
their natural habitat and show you around their own place.
How do I approach it?
Make sure to create multiple research activities, one for each place a
person visits. This way, your data is already structured in a way that
helps smooth analysis. Here's an example of what this looks like in a
You can use our media Express mission,
where you can capture unlimited photos and up to three videos from
scouts. See an inventory of the products and tools scouts use and get
video explanations after. Why did they use these products or tools, or
how did they use them? This is unmoderated!
You could also use a multi-entry, multi-activity Diary mission with the following structure:
- Activity 1 - Introduction to ground scouts in the product or topic that you’re interested in learning more about.
- Activity 2 - Inventory. Ask scouts to show you the different products they own and why.
- Activity 3 - Deep dive. Ask scouts to show us how they use 2-3 of these products and tools. What are the highs and lows, and why?
- Activity 4
- Reflection and ideation. Ask scouts to reflect on this mission and
tell you, in their own words, how they would improve a product or tool
When your research calls for more in-depth, on the ground information, the Places and Spaces approach is a great place to start.
Interested in seeing how some UXR teams ran a Places and Spaces project? Check out these field reports:
Joey Alvarez-Rinconeño, Belinda Nam, and Julieanne Moore are all research advisors on dscout's CXR team.