A few summers ago, while conducting focus groups for a well-known apparel brand, I experienced a first – a fire drill blaring about 30 minutes into a 2.5-hour focus group. As we walked down the three flights of fire stairs and were ushered outside to the parking lot, away from the building, my thoughts were on everyone’s comfort which we found standing in a circle under a big oak tree. The circle was a natural way to keep the conversation going. While this was my first experience conducting research outdoors, it was not my last. 

Although most research since the pandemic has changed from in-home, in-store, and in-situ, to remote, there are times when in-person research is required, and desired. Here’s how to conduct in-person research outside. 

Ground floor doorways. It may not be safe or comfortable yet to enter homes, but we can stand in doorways for show and tell sessions. This is what we did recently for a three-phase small retailer product study. We stood by the door, which we left open. We stood by the back door and watched how they receive, unpack, and store cartons, and by the front door we saw how they store and use their paper supplies. There are plenty of homes and ground-floor apartments where we can see how they use their gardens, backyards, and sheds, and stand in the doorway to kitchens and living rooms to talk about everything from home decor to kitchenware and cooking. 

Outdoor Patios. Many focus group facilities are in office buildings and office parks where there’s covered outdoor seating for holding the research outside. If facilities don’t have outdoor space, they can find a local restaurant or hotel that does (almost every Marriot Courtyard has good outdoor spaces) with good parking, clean restrooms, and room to spread out off-hours. Many restaurants are happy for the off-hours business, and facilities are looking forward to having us back.

Wide open spaces. We have spectacular state and local parks that are perfect for outdoor research. Everyone brings their own chairs and beverage. If there aren’t restrooms open off-season, keep the conversation to 90 minutes. Be mindful of everyone’s comfort levels. A woman that I wanted to interview didn’t want me at her home, nor did she feel comfortable anywhere near other people. When I suggested the local state park, she said she wanted to stand at least 27 feet away from me. No problem, we stood that far apart and talked on our phones. I saw every facial, hand and body gesture during our conversation.

Walks. When it’s a one-to-one or small group interview, walking is a great way to do research. Walking has some of the same benefits of a car ride or sitting around a campfire – there’s an ease to being side by side and not having continuous eye contact, not to mention we get in an hour of fresh air and thousands of steps. Walks are an excellent platform for conducting pet and family research, outdoor clothing and gear, testing fitness monitors, and so much more. 

Want to take people shopping? Start at a farmer’s market.

Spring is just around the corner and getting outside more is on everyone’s mind. Whether you’re conducting an interview, running a focus group, or connecting with friends, enjoy the outdoors while you do it.