EX02 - Observational research

User-centered design begins with people

Developing a process for exploring unknown subjects is core to your future growth as a UX designer.

Updated April 08, 2020

Joggers in the park.

Diners at the food court.

Little dogs in purses.

People watching is one of the original leisure activities.

While often entertaining, we pay attention to the world around us naturally. As a species, we leveraged this mechanism to search for subtle clues to tell us about the intentions of the people around us. Ranging from safety to mating — actions speak louder than words.

Observational research builds upon this instinct while adding the rigor of process to encourage data collection. Data can be both qualitative and quantitative in form. Often the type of data collected will depend directly on the number of participants included in the study.

The environment for your study is just as important as the participants you include. As your environment changes, the possible types of research that are possible will shift. For this reason, observational research is split into three categories.

Controlled observation

Using this research method, you provide an enviroment for the participant to work within. A controlled observation provides an easy way to remove variability from the environment.

As a lab study, you also control a number of other factors including:

  • Participants in the study
  • When the study is conducted
  • Location of the study

Naturalistic observation

This method is the closest to standard people watching. Neither the participants or the environment are controlled by the researcher. Instead, a researcher simply observes the interactions that occur in a given space. Whether a grocery store or a public park, the purpose is to see how people conduct themselves in their natural setting.

Advantages of this observation style include:

  • Often drives discovery
  • Uncovers previously unseen conduct
  • Participants conduct themselves naturally
  • Provides questions for further research

Participant observation

Viewing people in a place where they feel comfortable will often lead to unique insights that would be hard to collect elsewhere. Whether at a restaurant or the library, humans generally morph their actions to better fit the environment they are in. The major downfall with this style of study is your visibility as a researcher. As the environment becomes more restricted, contact with the participant rises.

Still, this style has its advantages:

  • A chance to see the chosen habitat of a participant
  • Focus can be narrowed to a singular subject or small group

Role of the researcher

The most obvious difference between the three observation styles described above is environmental in nature. Where the participant is when you are observing them matters. However, your visibility as a researcher will also have an outsized impact on the study as people conduct themselves differently when they suspect they are being watched.

Resources for review

Please use the following items to guide your exercise attempt:

Article/Video Source/Author
The best place to start is in the field New Pragmatic
Research methods in psychology Open Text WSU
Loop’d - Observational Research New Pragmatic


Length: Three-to-four hours to complete.

Observational research without people is ... difficult. To perform the task, it often requires going where the people are.

During an age of social distancing, the task seems challenging, but there are many ways to conduct the work safely.

Much of observational research is minimizing the visibility of the researcher, so you capture the way people naturally act in a given environment. In this exercise, you'll be performing research from a safe distance that both protects your well being and minimizes the awareness of the researcher (you).

Distancing observation

Communities around the globe have been under some form of contact restriction. Every service and business in your community will need to alter how it interacts with the public. While each area has its own set of restrictions, how has this ordeal changed your community?

In this exercise, you'll travel to two locations. You should use a Google Doc to record your findings, but you may want to use a transcription service like to capture your observations faster.

Part One: The first location should be outside and open to the public. A local park would be a great location. The goal is to observe how people interact with one another when their movement is restricted. As social distancing rules rarely apply to individuals from the same household, you will likely encounter some groups.

Data considerations include:

  • Location of research
  • Time of day
  • Weather
  • Individual details (age, mood, mask, gloves, etc.)
  • Group details (package individual details accordingly)
  • Effort to distance
  • Activities performed (walking, playing, etc.)

Part Two: The next location should present a fundamental issue for users. Namely, any place that requires a user touches a public surface. Grocery stores and restaurants come to mind, but nothing is trickier than the gas station. You can use your elbow to force a door open, but that doesn't work nearly as well when pumping gas.

Your goal here is to observe how people are working around the issues presented by the gas station.

Data considerations include:

  • Location of research
  • Time of day
  • Weather
  • Individual details (age, mood, mask, gloves, etc.)
  • Tasks completed (filled tank, paid at the pump, washed windshield, etc.)

If you happen to live in a metro area with few gas stations, consider performing your observation (from a safe distance) at a local train station. Many of the same challenges exist there as well.


Once complete, share your research document with and place a link to the document in your Program Journal. Post a link to your Journal in the #Feedback-Loop channel for review.


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