An Argument for Observational Research

August 21, 2015 in Human-Centered Design
Bridget Monahan
Senior Designer & Researcher

Observational research doesn’t get much buzz as a design research method. Perhaps it’s because observation is rarely used on its own. In an ethnographic study, participant observation is a key component of the ethnography, but it is one of multiple tools. Contextual inquiry — studying the context of a system or product’s use — certainly employs observation, but it’s the semi-structured interview that receives much of the focus. In fact, an in-depth interview is most reliably called upon when doing human-centered design.

When we think of work, it implies an act of doing something. The act of sitting quietly and observing may feel like nothing is being accomplished, or that too much time is being taken up without the tangible rewards that “making” can bring. But for real aha moments, you can’t beat observation. Why? Because people aren’t often aware of their own behaviors, nor do they see the frequent discrepancies between what they say they do, and what they actually do. Sitting and watching can illuminate the nuances in interactions between people, and between people and objects. You’ll be able to see things that a conversation alone cannot bring to life. And for our clients, revealing these discrepancies, and exploring their roots or implications, often fuels opportunities for new design, innovation and change.

I decided to conduct a short experiment to highlight how using observation alone can add to your insights and reveal upfront aspects for design that are not apparent through conversation alone. Over the past few weeks, I put my observational skills to use in Market Square — a public square near MAYA’s office.

A framework for observation

At different times during the day, I visited Market Square for some purposeful watching. “Purposeful” is key, as this method requires actively observing what is going on, not just hanging out to see what happens. The point is to systematically record what you are seeing in a comprehensive and descriptive way. I prefer using the AEIOU framework for observation: Activities (goal-directed sets of actions); Environments (arena where activities take place); Interactions (building blocks of activities); Objects (building blocks of environments); and Users (people whose behaviors, preferences and needs are being observed).

When conducting observational research, the ability to be discreet is very important, especially in settings such as someone’s office or home. In a public space such as Market Square, it was easy to take notes and pictures while blending in with the crowd. The tools you use are also important — whether it’s a pen, camera or notepad — it needs to be accessible and easy to use. Make sure your tools are not cumbersome or intrusive so that as the watcher, you don’t become the watched.

I opted to use note cards — one for each AEIOU — and made brief notations of my observations related to that category. I also made sketches and took pictures of what I found significant to help inform my insights.

Tracking flow patterns

Pattern flow can refer to how humans, things or information move through a space. For the purpose of this study, I tracked the movement of people. During the summer days, there are two distinct flow patterns through Market Square.

In the mornings, the Square serves as a conduit for people as they commute to their destinations. People enter from one point, cross over, and exit from another point. It also serves as a prep area for events scheduled later in the day.

Morning commute through Market Square

Setting up for the day

At lunchtime, the Square draws people into its center and retains them. Where the energy in the morning is through and out, it’s reversed at lunch so that people enter and stay.

Lunchtime activities keep people in the Square

Music is also a frequent draw as people sit and listen, or pause on their way to somewhere else

Identifying user types

Observing categories of user types is really useful for further probing when you are interviewing or surveying people. How different user types occupy a space; what their specific needs might be; and how the space accommodates (or doesn’t accommodate) the needs of the user are important questions that can be explored once you know who the users are.

Market Square isn’t defined by a dominant user type, but there are distinct differences between the people who access the Square in the mornings, during lunch and in the afternoon. I assumed that because office buildings surround the Square, people who work in those offices would be the dominant user type. However, after hours of observation, I realized that tourists, construction workers and families represent the majority of users.

An eclectic lunchtime crowd occupies every table and chair on a sunny day

Construction workers occupy a few tables around lunchtime, sharing a meal and taking a break

Following informal rules of conduct

Understanding how rules govern behavior is important. Are rules explicitly stated or are there unwritten guidelines that people learn on their own? Whose needs are primary in the organization? How do people navigate and make sense of expectations for their behavior?

It was apparent that informal, unwritten rules guide much of the use of Market Square. While I did not see any signs posted telling people how to use the Square, it was evident that people had created their own codes of use.

There are not any observable, explicit directions that pedestrians have the right of way. However, an unspoken agreement seems to exist among drivers and pedestrians that people can cross the streets freely, and that cars will drive slowly, stopping whenever necessary to let people walk past.

Safely crossing the street

The roadway around the Square is made of Belgian Block as a link back to Pittsburgh’s history and cultural heritage. Here we see that access to those in wheelchairs, mobility scooters, and bikes is not diminished, as smoother red brick demarcates crossing for those on wheels. The difference in road materials signal to drivers that this is a distinct pathway and other rules may apply.

Different road materials designate distinct pathways

Social patterns and interactions also create informal agreements. These people meet in the Square most days for a standing game of chess. Their routine establishes an understanding among Square visitors that this is “their space.”

Routines help to establish an environment

Establishing accountability

To operate smoothly, there must be a clear understanding of accountability among users in a given space or organization. Are areas of responsibility clearly established? Is there a sense that people are being looked after, cared for, and do they know whom to turn to for support?

Every time I visited Market Square, the Pittsburgh Police were present, either on bicycles, on foot, or with the squad car. There was also the “Clean Team” truck or crew clearly noticeable. This kind of constant, visible presence subtly reminds people that this space is cared for and the safety and enjoyment of its visitors is a priority.

Creating peace of mind for visitors

A case for further observation

Although my time was limited, I was able to uncover important areas that could be further investigated and deciphered: Pattern Flows, User Types, Rules Governing Behavior, and Accountability and Authority in the System.

Systematic observation of the Activities, Environments, Interactions, Objects, and Users can reveal insights into areas of opportunity (or risk) that an organization may not realize exists. When faced with a design challenge, it’s important to have as much information as possible so you can build the right solution for people. Words alone can’t give you the whole picture.

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