My two most recent articles in UXmatters have been about two research techniques that are very common to anthropology and the social sciences but are rarely used in design research. Covert naturalistic observation and participant observation certainly require more work and time than we usually have in UX projects, but it’s worth taking a look at these two methods to see what we can adapt to design research.
Covert Naturalistic Observation
This type of study is known in psychology, anthropology, and other social sciences as covert naturalistic observation. It is the opposite of the techniques we typically use, which are forms of overt naturalistic observation. Being covert means observing behaviors in their natural contexts without any intervention or influence by the researcher and without participants knowing that they’re being observed.
Anthropologists and sociologists often practice participant observation, in which they join a group as a participating member to get a first-hand perspective of the group and their activities. Instead of observing as an outsider, they play two roles at once—objective observer and subjective participant…
I had an interesting experience recently observing another user researcher conducting user research. I was overseeing a project with a more junior researcher who was actually doing the work. She was conducting contextual inquiries, and I was the secondary person on the team, simply observing her lead the session. The experience made me realize several things.
What you notice as an observer
It’s difficult to let someone else lead
Sitting back and simply observing instead of leading the session was a very odd experience for me. I’m used to taking the active role and leading the session. It was difficult to restrain myself from asking questions and taking over the session. It took me a while to relax and just let the session unfold. Once I did that, I realized that I noticed different things.
You notice different things
When you’re simply observing and you don’t have to facilitate, you’re able to observe more. Since you don’t have to focus on taking notes, assessing the information that you’re taking in, thinking of the next question to ask, and maintaining a positive rapport with the participant; you can focus more on the context in which the tasks are performed. Since I knew my colleague was recording the session and taking detailed notes on what the participant was doing and saying, I found myself taking more notes on the work environment, the participant’s desk, the things posted on the cubicle wall, and tools that the participant used.
You notice how well the research works
As an observer, you notice much more about how well the primary researcher facilitates the session, you see how the participant reacts to the situation, and you pick up tips for your own facilitating. You can sit back and focus on the interaction between the researcher and participant with a critical eye.
What is the role of a secondary researcher?
What can we learn from this, and what’s the role of a secondary researcher on field research? The secondary researcher:
- Should stay out of the way and let the primary researcher lead the session
- Can note additional questions and ask them at appropriate intervals, without throwing off the direction of the session
- Can focus on the environment and contextual cues, taking detailed notes and asking specific questions about these elements
- Can be the note-taker who takes detailed notes, when there won’t be enough time to listen to the recordings later
- Can evaluate how well the primary researcher facilitates the session, using that knowledge to provide constructive feedback later and also to improve his/her own skills in facilitation
Two is the magic number of people who should attend field studies. One is the primary researcher. The other can be another researcher, but it’s often better to include a designer to allow him/her to see the research first hand. So in most cases, a second researcher is not the best person to attend research. Although when a second researcher does attend, use the techniques I’ve discussed in this post to make the most of the experience.