Design research: The (not so) secret art of observation

By: Luella Paine
Date: May, 2019
File under: Articles

Observation is a powerful yet often overlooked tool in the world of experience design. This article looks at why observation is useful, when and where it can be used and how to hone your observation skills to improve your research outcomes.

In the context of experience research, observation involves watching someone undertake a process, task or activity, or interact with a product or service. This kind of observation is an active process (as opposed to the passive act of watching the telly) where the observer pays close attention to detail and has a specific goal or outcome in mind.

At U1 we use observation as a technique in all of our face-to-face research projects including usability testing, user interviews, contextual inquiries and workshops.

Observation is an active process that has a specific focus or goal.

Advantages and disadvantages of using observation in experience research

Observing someone complete a task often gives a richer, more accurate understanding of the process than simply getting them to describe what they do. Observation of experience research allows the observer to see first-hand what happens instead of relying on someone else’s account or imagining what might happen.

Observation is also a useful way to verify what someone has said or to flesh out the detail of their described experience.

Of course, observation also has its drawbacks. For example, participants may change how they carry out a task if they know they are being observed, the observer effect in research is a phenomenon known as the Hawthorne Effect. And, as observers, we need to avoid introducing our own biases or misinterpretations into our observations.

However, the impact of any limitations can be minimised with a carefully designed research project and sound observation techniques.

Observation is a useful way to verify what someone has said or to flesh out the detail of their described experience.

Observation settings

Typically, when conducting experience research we conduct observations in either a controlled or naturalistic setting.

Controlled environments such as a lab or interview room are where we conduct most of our research projects at U1. In a controlled environment, participants are always told that they are part of a research project and know they are being observed.

Having a controlled environment ensures that all research participants are subject to the same conditions (e.g. devices, environment, lighting and temperature). It is also much simpler to coordinate, set up and conduct research in a controlled location. This is particularly useful if there are tight project deadlines to consider.

The disadvantage of controlled environment is that participants may find it harder to act naturally in an unfamiliar environment and may be more prone to the Hawthorne Effect. Again, specific research goals, careful research design and clear observation guidelines can help mitigate against these issues.

Naturalistic environments, also known as ‘in the field’, are places such as the home or workplace where people typically use a product or complete a task. While it is possible to observe people without their knowledge in the field, our research participants are always informed that they are part of a study and will be observed.

Participants are generally quite comfortable in these more familiar settings and likely to behave as they would in real life. Of course, outside of the lab it is harder to control external factors such as equipment and environment, and this kind of research is often trickier and more time-consuming to coordinate than research in a controlled environment.

Participants are always informed that they are part of a study and will be observed.

Observation techniques in research

Experience researchers have a few options for approaching their observations. The most common method is straight observation where the participant is monitored as they conduct a task or process. Typically, the researcher who moderates the session also observes the participant, however, there may also be other observers if there is a discrete way for them to view the subject.

With a controlled environment, such as our U1 labs, a number of people can observe a session or workshop without disturbing participants via a one-way mirror. It is also possible to observe participants via live or recorded video. In all these cases, it is important to inform the participant that they are being observed or recorded.

A man observing a workshop session through the observation window

Another approach is participatory observation where the researcher monitors the participant, or participants, while undertaking an activity with them. While this approach can a be useful way for the researcher to experience the task first-hand, they need to be careful that they don’t interfere with the process or become distracted and miss important insights.

Researchers can also observe a participant by shadowing them as they go about tasks as part of their daily routine. This is often an approach in the field, allowing the participant to move around freely to complete activities and interact with people and objects in their environment.

What to observe

For any experience research project, the focus of observations will centre around the specific goals of the study. The goals may be exploratory, such as a recent project we conducted where we wanted to know how people researched and selected their utilities and telco providers and paid their bills.

Alternatively, the goals may focus on testing a hypothesis or set of assumptions. Again, in a recent project, our hypothesis was that health insurance customers wanted to browse products before they committed to getting a specific quote.

While keeping observations focused around the goals of the project, there are often specific aspects of a participant’s behaviour and environment that warrant particular attention as we observe our subject. These may include:

  • User actions and conduct – what’s similar and different to other users
  • Activities, steps or workflows in a task or process
  • First step to complete a task or achieve a goal
  • Repetitive steps or actions
  • Pauses or interruptions – what causes them, what does the user do afterwards
  • Reactions and mood changes – these can be positive or negative
  • Where and when a user believes they have completed a task or achieved a goal
  • Whether a user succeeds or fails to complete a task and the time taken
  • How the user interacts with an interface or object
  • Touchpoints where the user connects with tools, technology or people
  • The physical environment e.g. time of day, temperature, noise, light, artefacts, workspaces, rooms

Tips for successful observations

While most of us are familiar with the act of observing, being an effective, impartial and consistent observer improves with practice. However, being conscious of your behaviour as an observer can vastly improve the quality of your insights. In particular:

  • Decide before the session how much structure is required – even with a more freeform session you still need clear goals
  • Create a guide and stick to it – this keeps you focused, helps structure notetaking, ensures consistency and avoids introducing errors by going off track
  • Start the session with a simple warmup task or discussion to allow the participant to feel comfortable and settled before completing any activities
  • Encourage the participant to ‘think out loud’ as they complete a task or process
  • Minimise your interaction with the participant (unless you are conducting participatory research)
  • Try to be unobtrusive e.g. using an extra monitor to mirror the participant’s display will allow you to establish a comfortable distance between you and the participant
  • Embrace pauses and silences and let the participant progress at their own pace
  • Avoid leading or influencing the participant and provide direction only when absolutely necessary
  • Save follow-up questions until the end of an activity to minimise interruptions
  • Check in with the participant to explore or verify what you observed
  • Record the session if possible so that you can cross-check your observations afterwards

One way to improve the accuracy and relevance of your insights is to have more than one person observing a session so you can compare and corroborate your notes afterwards.

Whatever your approach to observation, it is without doubt a powerful and practical tool to discover how people actually undertake tasks or use a product or service. Aim to incorporate it as an integral part of your experience research toolkit and continually look for ways to improve the accuracy, reliability and impartiality of your techniques.

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