Observational Research

The best place to start is in the field

What people say and do are often quite different, so before we talk to users let's spend time observing them.

Updated May 28, 2019

When we strip away the words, all we are left to focus on are the actions of a person. It is in these motions and expressions that the sincere desire and intent of people comes to the surface.

While observational research is far more nuanced than the statement above admits, the idiom’ actions speaking louder than words’ has woven its way into psychology folklore for a reason. In fact, numerous authors have written to great lengths on the amount of communication that we actually miss by focusing all our attention on languages that are spoken by the mouth rather than by the body.

Study through observation represents one of the messiest ways that you can begin to learn about the problems experienced by users within a system. I say messy only because you have little to no control over the environment. I encourage you to see this as a feature rather than a bug. You will only be able to see users this naturally when you enter their environment and allow them to be themselves.

Observational research is a form of ethnography. In A Designer’s Research Manual authors Jenn and Ken Visocky O’Grady boil down ethnographic research into the triad of “who’s it for, what will they do with it, and how can we make this better?” It is important to note that all ethnographic research is qualitative in nature. There is little if any way to scale what you see from one interaction to the next, but there are common themes that begin to resonate when we spend enough time observing that produce a higher quality of clarity than any quantitative research could produce.

Keys to successful observation

Permission and distance

In the realm of social science, the need for permission is dictated by several factors, including setting, impact on behavior, and the likelihood of harm.

The setting plays a role in that you might not actually be able to seek permission because of variables as simple as volume. In the image below, the flow of people coming through the restaurant and ordering is too high to seek out permission from everyone being observed. There is still a significant amount of insight that you can gather from a distance, so focus your attention on keeping up with what is happening in front of you.

room-observation Source:

In smaller settings where your observation is likely to key on particular individuals, asking permission is ideal. For instance, if you plan on following a subject for an extended period, you want to have that conversation before you begin. This is the difference between doing observational research and stalking.

Conversely, if there is a chance that the subject may behave differently if aware of your activities, you may observe but maintain a reasonable distance.

However, if your presence could be perceived as potentially harmful, you definitely want to identify yourself to the parties in control of that space. We’re all welcome to go watch how people use devices as the museum, but the moment small children are the subject you are studying, people get antsy.

Decoding non-verbal communication

While the sheer amount of communication that is non-verbal has long been debated (author Robert Greene pegs it at 65% in The Laws of Human Nature), it’s foolish to ignore its presence. From the way we grimace at bad news to how we shift our weight when a task takes too long, our bodies say more about our state of mind than our mouths would ever dare.

The ability to read body language is often lumped in with the magical “street smarts,” when it really is just you paying more attention to the actions of others instead of worrying about their reaction to us.

Observing non-verbal communication becomes significantly more manageable when we are not interacting directly with the subject we’re watching (this is why it is ideal to have an assistant during user interviews).

From afar, you might assume that you won’t be able to understand what is happening across the room, but there is actually plenty to decode.

The way we stand as humans and our progression through stances can provide clues to our overall mood. For instance, when you see people shifting their weight, they are growing impatient with the process. When we see someone suddenly stand up straight, they are preparing to engage or renew the engagement. The way someone stands, combined with their facial expression, can predict whether they are preparing to battle or be diplomatic.

Up close, you’ll have an opportunity to listen to what the person is saying and compare that information to the emotion they are expressing with their body. People often attempt to be diplomatic with their words but allow their true feelings to leak out through their posture and their facial expressions.

Record more than people

We often pay close attention to the actions of people and the things they are interacting with but fail to record the situational data present in the setting. When a person enters a room, they have injected themselves into a system. The things present in that system will play a role in determining whether they have a good or bad experience while they are there.

When you are sitting in that same space, you’re subject to many of the same conditions as your participant — meaning that collecting that information is pretty easy to do. Here’s a list of things you should automatically record during any study in the field:

  • time (morning/afternoon/night)
  • temperature (inside vs. outside)
  • weather (if inside, what is it like outside)
  • location volume (busy/slow)
  • data connection (good/bad/none)


Length: Two-to-three hours to complete.

If you enjoy people watching, this will be quite fun. For this task, you’re going to leave the confines of your home or office for a field trip.

Almost every city or town has a grocery store where people can grab what they need to feed themselves or their families sufficiently.

In this exercise, you will be observing the buying habits of shoppers at a local grocery store.

The duration of this task is a minimum of 30 minutes, but the longer you can stay without drawing attention, the better your research for this exercise will be.

  1. Find a place to station yourself near the exit area (but not in a location that would slow customers from exiting the store).
  2. Make a note of the conditions present (refer to list above).
  3. Record how many users check out during your time there.
  4. Note the demographic details for each shopper and make a rough guess regarding the number of bags or items they have purchased (do they need a cart? was it just toilet paper? etc...)
  5. What is the mood of the customers exiting the checkout area?
  6. Are the customers with family? On the phone? Otherwise distracted?
  7. Create a new Google Doc to record your findings.


The quality of your observation gains a new dimension when you return for the second round of research OR if you move to a similar establishment (trading one grocery store for another). When you take this extra step, you begin to see similarities and differences between the two locations that aren’t possible in a single session.

Upon completion, update your Program Journal with links to any assets produced in this exercise. Post your journal in the Feedback-Loop channel for review.

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