The development of methods tools and process improvements is best to be based on the understanding of the development practice to be supported. Qualitative research has been proposed as a method for understanding the social and cooperative aspects of software development. However, qualitative research is not easily combined with the improvement orientation of an engineering discipline. During the last 6 years, we have applied an approach we call ‘cooperative method development’, which combines qualitative social science fieldwork, with problem-oriented method, technique and process improvement. The action research based approach focusing on shop floor software development practices allows an understanding of how contextual contingencies influence the deployment and applicability of methods, processes and techniques. This article summarizes the experiences and discusses the further development of this approach based on several research projects in cooperation with industrial partners.