How to Conduct Observational Studies in Design

In design, observational studies are useful when you cannot talk to people directly or to better understand how people perform a task. This is because it is easier for people to perform a task than to explain how they perform it. As a design researcher, your goal will be to directly watch how people behave and perform actions, notice the dynamics and interactions in a place and what happens in a situation, and observe how people use and interact with a design solution (if you are testing one).

Additionally, you will systematically document what you observe (take notes!). The second image provides guidance for note taking. While it is important to capture in writing and with photos everything you see, keep in mind why you are observing and pay particular attention to anything that is related to that goal. Notes are essential to inform design decisions, so take loads of notes, add adjectives, describe details. Think about how someone who is not there with you could visualize the same scene you are observing by reading your notes.

Depending on your degree of participation in the observed situation, you can conduct three types of observational studies:

Non-participant observationsShadowingParticipant observations
Observe a situation but don’t interfere; this means that people shouldn’t know that you are observing. For example, this method is used to observe people interacting with information in public spaces, like an airport or a museum.Observe people by following them closely (you become their “shadow”), but don’t intervene; they know you are observing them. For example, spend a day in the office with them, observe how they perform tasks relevant to your project, spend a day with another student attending their classes.Observe and experience the phenomenon by engaging in the activity or performing the task; this is often called “Walk in the users’ shoes”. For example, if working in a healthcare project, pretend to be a patient and go to the hospital to book an appointment. This will to get you a better sense of the experience.
These observations help:
– To better understand a situation or how people do things
– To learn how people use or interact with a new design in their environments
These observations help:
– To learn how people make decisions, what their mental models are, how they behave in social or work situations
– To learn how people use or interact with a new design in their environments
These observations help:
– To experience first-hand what people do
– To understand roles, perspectives, and interactions
– To learn how people use or interact with a new design in their environments

Some of these studies are more helpful at the beginning of the process, before you start designing. These studies are called Exploratory Studies. Others are more useful at the end of the process when you already have a design artifact or solution and you want to test it with its intended users. These studies are called Evaluative Studies.

Online observation studies

While conducting non-participant observations online can be challenging, you can easily conduct flavors of the other two types of observational studies. For example, one way to adapt shadowing is by asking participants to actively share with you parts of their life or moments during the day that are related to what you want to observe. The key to make the most of this method online is to gather quantity and variety of imagery so you can get a holistic understanding of the other person’s life. Ask your participants to document the activity or interaction you want to observe by taking photos, recording videos at different moments, making drawings. Make sharing of this material easier for them to increase their engagement in the study. For example, ask participants in advance what would be more convenient for them. Some options could be creating a private Instagram account, using DropBox, or using another online sharing platform.

For more guidance on how to conduct observation studies in design, check out my book.


Observations is one of the most powerful methods that is often not used correctly because of lack of detailed attention and systematic note taking. As a result, students and designers tend to underestimate its value. These are three exercises of increasing complexity to help practice key tasks of this method and better understand how to make the most of it.

EXERCISE 1: Analyze. Write down advantages and disadvantages of each type of observation for information design projects: participant, shadowing and non-participant observations. What are the factors that need to be considered in each case? Write down one example for each type using a current project or assignment you are working on.

EXERCISE 2: Practice note taking. Put together many objects in the center of a table, for example 2 tomatoes, 5 pencils, 1 mug, and a pair of scissors. Observe the resulting scene from at least three different points of view. Spend 5-8 minutes on each view writing down everything you see and using descriptive terms. Change places, observe and write down what you see. Change again. Then share your notes with another person (who has not seen the scene) and ask them to describe the scene, to draw it or to recreate it.

EXERCISE 3: Go into the field. Choose and go to a public place, find a spot where you can observe social interactions, take notes and photos. For example, if you can go outside, go to a park. Make sure these are useful photos that will help you better understand the story later. If you cannot go out, adapt this exercise to the online constraints. For example, next time you have an online meeting with 2 or more people or you attend an online conference, observe and take notes about each person’s background, details, body languages, interactions between people, etc.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Series 1: Understanding how to design for real people | Bridging Theory and Practice

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