UX in the physical world: 6 tips for conducting research beyond the screen

Over the past few months, I've been conducting research for Bristol City Council (BCC), but rather than a solely digital endeavour, this research has been carried out in physical spaces.

It took place in the various BCC customer service points throughout Bristol. The aim was to discover users' needs, how they use the service points, and their opinions on how the council could improve other areas such as online, phones and letters (to reduce the need for them to visit the service points). Our findings will inform the design of a new service point that will open towards the end of the year.

During the process, I learnt 6 key things:

1. Visit on different days and at different times.

This way you’ll get a more comprehensive picture. For our first visit, we arrived at the service point before it opened on a Monday morning,  and the queue outside told a story of its own. However, when we paid our second visit on a Wednesday afternoon, the service point was quiet and fairly orderly.


2. Play dumb.

People will open up to you more if you give the impression that you’re not a ‘specialist’ or particularly knowledgeable about the area you’re researching. We referred to ourselves simply as ‘researchers’ and didn't mention UX, and, as a result, the people we spoke to didn't ask many questions about what we were doing. This allowed us to focus on them and hear their stories, which after all, was what we were there to do.

3. Bring a clipboard to write on.

It may sound obvious, but it’s easily overlooked. When talking to users who are moving around a physical space, there are seldom opportunities to lean on a hard surface in order to take notes. Bring a clipboard. You won’t regret it.

4. Use a crib sheet.

Using a crib sheet helps to ensure that you stick to the objectives and that you and your colleague are working to the same format. (It’s always best to do research in pairs as you’ll see more and can compare notes and thoughts as you go.)

In order to get a well-rounded picture of typical user journeys at the service points, we used the crib sheet shown below. The ‘before, during, after’ reminded us to check users' journeys at different points throughout their visit, and to remain focused on the task when they were telling us their stories.

5. Look out for signs that have been put up around the building.

The need for a sign often indicates where there is a problem area. Take the example below – a sign that tells users not to wait in this queue if they have an appointment. This suggests that the design of the space isn't naturally leading users to the correct area. You can use this information to ensure that the space does the work for the user in your design.

6. Sketch out the user journey as they move around the space.

Watch a few users from the moment they enter to the point at which they leave, sketching their journey as they move from one area to another. With this knowledge, you can organise the space in the most effective way for users, making use of the natural flow.

Hartcliff diagram

This project has shown that UX is as much about designing an experience for the real world as it is about designing a digital experience for the user. We can use our skills as UX practitioners to make the experience of everyday physical interactions more effective and most of all more enjoyable.

Have you conducted research in the real world? Add your tips below.


A UX Content Specialist with a background in UX research and design. Anna finds purpose in projects that positively impact people’s lives.