Fundamentals of Observational Research

Distilled from Eric Youngblood’s presentation on the Fundamentals of Observational Research available at

Fundamentals of Observational Research
Structured Observation: Why, Techniques, Tips

  • Why observation?
    • Challenge embedded assumptions
    • Raise questions and hypotheses
    • Fill in gaps
      • From interviews; because people don’t observe their own lives
    • Reveal overlooked details and patterns
    • Pre-process data in the field
      • Focus on a narrow set of questions as you distill your observations into a set of peculiar noted patterns.
    • Very flexible
      • No advanced prep needed (although it helps)
      • Can be done spur of the moment or in downtime
      • Can be done over long or short periods of time
      • Works across language barriers
      • Do it in down time, or with very little direction (ambiguity works here).
      • Think of two axes: breadth vs depth, qualitative vs quantitative
      • Observation can find and suit any spot on this terrain depending on perspective and orientation in the field. But it doesn’t replace other methods, it complements them.
    • Simplicity
      • Pen, paper, and some spare time are all you absolutely need.
  • Observation limitations:
    • Doesn’t answer the “why”
  • Go in with structure
    • Think about: People, activities, settings, things (PAST), or People, objects, environments, messages, services (POEMS)
      • Types of people, genders, ages, roles, groupings, proxemics
      • Movement, interaction, stopping/starting, looking, touching, where, when, how often, for how long, with whom?
      • Spatial layout, features, pathways, barriers, sounds, smells, temperature, lighting
      • Structures, signage, transportation, utilities, commercial goods, possessions, erosions/ accretions, sizes, shapes, qualities, quantities, relative proximities
        • Are people doing things in predicted or unpredicted ways?
  • Structure notes in advance if necessary:
    • Note the time, elapsed time, location, who (what selection or sample criteria), etc.
    • Can be templated e.g. map of environment, table of entities and things to look for, etc.

Fundamental techniques:

  • Counting
    • Tallies document and reveal
      • How often something occurs
      • How many people or things are present
      • Relative amounts of x vs y (contrasting)
  • Timing
    • Measuring the duration of things
      • Customer wait times
      • Differences across activity types, customer types, locations, or times of day
      • Barriers or challenges to desired customer experiences
    • Add details to notes regarding observations concerning: sex, approximate age, additional qualitative notes (actions of note, contexts of note). Notes help keep you focused on what you are looking at, *but don’t over focus* and miss the forest for the trees.
  • Diagramming
    • Abbreviated / simplified capturing of movement and activity (diagrams or sociograms). Can coincide with tallies and timings, but keep only what is useful (maybe capture snippets of info and bits of conversation)
      • Movement of objects between people
      • Movement of people in relation to other people
      • Movement of people in relation to objects and space
      • Big or small patterns of social interaction; different types of roles or activities for different types of people in the same setting.
  • Mapping
    • More complex version of diagramming, plotting things in a complex setting. Maps can often be grabbed from some locales.
      • Types, locations and quantities of objects within the space
      • Features that might inhibit or encourage different activities
      • Distill archetypical journeys, pacing in areas, objects, touch points, conversation areas, lounging, activity, etc.

Tips & Tricks

  • Start simple (narrower questions are easier to work with and lead to more questions more readily)
  • Have clear goals and hypotheses going in can be helpful
  • List things you know you want to pay attention to (people, objects, activities, messages, etc.)
  • Use video and photo thoughtfully, useful for creating stories, but time consuming for analysing. Can also inhibit people.
  • Blend in and be nice to people.

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