1. Embrace your participants' world view
Great research will help you understand how the people you are designing for organize and describe the world. Their words reveal their frame of mind. That means you must discover your own jargon, and let it go. Just because you are designing a netbook doesn't mean that your research participants will view it as anything other than a "tiny laptop." It's not the researcher's job to change people's language, so not only must you not correct them (directly or indirectly) you must take care not to even introduce the term "netbook" if you aren't certain that's the label they are already using. Overall, you must be open to giving your participants the chance to tell you their story and being able to hear what's important to them.
2. Think carefully about who you want to talk to
We're all for being opportunistic, especially when racing against the clock, and while co-workers and friends are easy to get to, make sure you consider the characteristics that will be the most fruitful for your research. Consider contrasts (i.e., a marathoner and someone who's just trying to lose a few pounds). Consider not only current customers (i.e., they are using your baby bottle warmer) but those who might be future customers (i.e., they are pregnant). Define screening criteria that you can reliably measure, typically around behavior (i.e., How many times a day do you pump breast milk?) versus attitude (i.e., Are you a Caring Nurturer?).
3. Plan what you're going to do in the field
Don't just wing it. Terry Gross prepares for her interviews, and you should too. Put together an outline of all the topics you might possibly cover. List all the photographs you want to get (i.e., close-up of the participant, master shot of their environment, the outside of their dwelling, participant with a relevant product, you in the field, etc.). Identify all the tasks you want to have demonstrated. Prepare a set of props to get reactions to. And figure out how the session should flow so you'll have enough time to cover what you're interested in.
4. Be prepared to really sift through your data to find the best nuggets
Most interviews generate immediate design ideas. But that's the low-hanging fruit. Chances are your competitors already have the low-hanging fruit. And while you should absolutely capture those ideas, your effort is largely wasted if you don't take the time to go back and read transcripts, watch videos, look at photos, talk to the rest of the team and synthesize the deeper, more elusive findings. You have to go beyond "Include a sticky-backed hook in the package" to get to "Help people experience their media in more places." We were thrilled to see a client return from a session in the field and order documentation changes to correct ambiguous language and typos, but we were more thrilled when our in-depth analysis revealed a completely broken mental model and gave the design team a starting point for a refreshed user interface that would have previously been dismissed as heretical.
5. Remember that design research is a skill and takes practice
Sure, the core activity is just talking to people. But writing is more than just typing, and design is more than knowing how to use a pencil. Design research is about much more than holding a video camera and watching what people do. Hold your design research to the same standard of excellence as the rest of your work. You'll know you've succeeded when you can represent your customer's perspective on current and future products; when you've found something surprising out of the fieldwork, and when you've distilled those surprises into implications like new products ideas, new features, a design brief. Sure, you could have come up with those ideas without doing research, but now you can make a complete case from uncovered need to relevant solution. If you can't pull this off, get some help from someone who can.
Steve Portigal is the founder of Portigal Consulting, a bite-sized firm that helps organizations to discover and act on new insights about themselves and their customers.