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How to Conduct User Observation

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Two core activities help conduct User research: user observation and user activity. While observing people, we get significant value on how they behave, how they react, their needs, their pain points, and how they perform their tasks. 

When interviewing people, they merely provide you with a real case scenario. Their many influences do not allow them to know about their needs and pain point. Sometimes, they do not want to give you the correct information because they do not trust you and do not wish to provide any information related to them, so they lie.

What is User Observation?

User observation involves watching and listening to people when they are using any product or service. In this way, a researcher can get an objective view of the product or service. User observation is not just watching and listening to people; it involves careful, conscious, and purposeful efforts, processes the information, and comes to an output.

The Purpose of Observation in Research

  • To enable the researcher to gather data which is not easy to obtain by other means.
  • It allows the researcher to collect sufficient data to verify the information gathered.
  • It enables the researcher to gather information to describe the behaviour towards the product being studied, which cannot be done otherwise without observation.
  • It allows the researcher to collect data from through questionnaires, surveys, etc.

Types of User Observation

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Noticing an individual’s behaviour is a major element of user observation. Here are some of its types, their user observation examples and what to look for during user observation. Let us get to it then.

Participant observation

Participant observation is a traditional ethnographic research method in which the researcher joins the group and participates in the group activities. This observation is useful when a researcher has to study the group and observe how users interact with the product. Therefore, it deals with service design, redesigning process, business applications, and system design, for example, customer experience in a restaurant, nurses in daycare, real estate agents, etc.

Group research is where participant observation is focused, so it would not be the right research method where the activities of the participants are alone or infrequently. For example, purchase on eCommerce websites.

Usability Testing

Usability testing comes in handy to evaluate the product by testing it with the representative users. The users will perform a specific task while the observer will listen, watch, and take notes. The researcher will collect quantitative and qualitative data and determine the satisfaction level of the users with the product. The researcher can ask questions about what a user is thinking and doing, but the primary thing is to observe the actions. 

Contextual inquiry

Contextual inquiry is the research in the context of the user. Observing people in their natural environment while they are demonstrating and explaining their typical task. But the primary value is to see the way users are performing their jobs. The analysis is more realistic when the users are evaluated in their natural environment. The researcher gets information about their workflow, the tools they are using, and the experience in the physical environment.

Naturalistic Observation

In naturalistic observation, the researcher observes the user without interacting with them; the main goal is to see their natural behaviour without interrupting them. It allows users to study things that can not be manipulated. For example, watching the actions of students and their interaction with each other in the classroom. Also, the dynamics between the teacher and the students.

Shadowing

In shadowing, the researcher only acts as an observer, and the participants complete the tasks in their natural environment. It is different from contextual inquiry as the participants are interviewed first or involved in a group discussion to know about their needs. During shadowing, the researcher develops a list of questions posed to the participants at the end of the session. The participants are also provided, with a commentator, who explains what is being observed. The time to conduct shadowing can vary from 30 minutes to days or even weeks.

Covert Observation

Covert observation is similar to naturalistic observation, where the participants are being observed in their natural environment. The only difference here is that the researcher observes the participants without informing them. This type of observation is performed, where there is no expectation of privacy, like in public places. For example, to observe the behaviour of the people in an airport.

Controlled observation

Controlled observation is a structured observation that takes place in a laboratory. Here, the researcher explains the purpose of the research to the participants, and they know that they are under observation. The researcher controls many of the variables such as location, time, participants, surroundings and more. Observations are recorded quantitatively in each step and also qualitative in subjective type questions. 

Planning an Observation

Observation is not just going somewhere and passively looking and listening. You have to plan things to get the desired result.

● The Goal of the Research

First, decide what you want to learn from this research. Frame specific questions which you want to answer at the end. Even if you have doubts in your mind, that would not mean you should stop observing the other vital details. Start with a specific concept, be flexible and revise your plans if necessary.

● Plan your Research Methods

Decide which type of research methods you want to use according to the problem and circumstances- such as the type of interview, contextual inquiries, or naturalistic observation. Plan the sessions, decide whether you want to interview first, then observe the participants, or first observe and then interview to answer questions that arose during the observation. 

● Design the Tasks

Decide some real tasks that you want your participants to perform during the observation. Your tasks should focus on the part of the problem or product you are studying. Once you decide the tasks, write them out as short and simple instructions.

● Plan What, Where, When and Who to Observe

Once you have designed the tasks, find participants to perform those tasks, where they are, and when they will perform those tasks and when you will need to visit the participants.

● Decide the Use of Recording Equipment:

According to the type of research method, you can use recording equipment such as videotape. You can analyze it later once the session is over, from which you can get enormous amounts of valuable information. 

● Pan Multiple Sessions:

Observing participants over several sessions can be very advantageous:

Tasks and events can be conducted at different times of the day, once in a week or each month. By doing it, you will get the variety in your research outcomes. Repetition gives you a better understanding of the issues and problems because of the variations in the participants.

You can have focused attention on a particular problem over an extended period.

● Conduct background research

It is essential to know the information which already exits, also known as secondary research. You can do your secondary research from past research papers, journals, articles, books. Learn as much as you can about their tasks, environments, tools, business domains. It is simpler for you to know what details to focus on during the research.

● Determine the settings

Determine the ideal setting, according to the observation method you are choosing. With a proper room, desk, hardware, software, video camera, microphones etc.

Conducting the observation

Once you have done other research methods like an interview or contextual inquiry, it will be easier for you to conduct naturalistic observation as they are already familiar with you and comfortable with your presence.

  1. Introduce yourself.
  2. Describe the purpose of your research: explain to the participants what problem you are trying to find in a product, system, or service. 
  3. Tell participants they can quit any time if they are not comfortable. Participants should not feel locked into completing the task.
  4. Ask participants to think aloud during the tasks they are performing. Saying what comes to the mind as they work. It will help you to determine their intentions and their problem-solving strategies. 
  5. Give participants a specific set of instructions and the tasks to perform in a particular order. Do not demonstrate something you are trying to test. 
  6. Ask the participants if there is any question they want to ask before starting the observation. 
  7. Conclude the observation by explaining what you were to find out during the test, answer the questions of the participants, if any, discuss the compelling behaviour you would like to explain to the participants. 
  8. If you find any participant making mistakes, you should attribute the faulty design, not the participant. 
  9. Review all your data carefully and thoroughly from your notes, videotapes, worksheets, tasks, etc. Look for the places where participants had trouble, look at the behaviour of the participants at every stage while using the product or service or setting. 
  10. Keeping the records of your data and documenting it in a particular format will help you make design decisions. 
  11. Once you have analyzed the result and come to the findings, fix the problem area, and test the product again. If you are evaluating your product more than once, you will see the user experience changes.  

The Importance of Observation in Research

By now, you should be clear about user observation examples based on the types of user observation. The impact of observational UX research methods is often misjudged. It’s because our motive is to fit our products into the lives of the customer. But we tend to forget that people do not change their behaviour to use a product and that a lot goes on in an individual’s day than their strict interaction with the product. What we need to understand is how to fit our products in their lives by watching them in action.

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