User Research: Observation

User Research Entry | February 14th 2017

Observation is one of the user research methodology. In an observation practice, researchers observe what people do and document what they hear and see.

For the user research project, I learned and carried out two observation practices.

What I Did: Observe and Record

First Observation Practice

The first observation practice was done in a small group during the studio time and lasted only five minutes. The location selected was the Starbucks in the Hub.

Since it was just a quick practice, the group chose this location mainly because is it was easily accessible from the class building and there were usually many people at the location.

During the practice, the group stood by the Starbucks line for five minutes and took notes about people’s behavior. After returning to the classroom, the group shared their observation notes and sorted out several practice being observed during the observation. The first practice is people using their phone in line and the second practice is people sitting with their backs toward the windows.

Afterwards, we selected a practice that we didn’t expect encountering, which in this case was how people like to sit with their backs toward the window. We made the choice because we thought people would prefer facing outdoor while sitting. Based on this practice, we came up of a design challenge: how to redesign the environment to encourage people to pay more attention to their surrounding? We made this proposal because we believed such design may help people enjoy the outdoor environment and relax better.

Second Observation Practice

The second observation practice was done individually out of class. The location selected was the NE Campus Pkwy & 12th Ave NE bus stop. The stop is in UW Seattle campus in front of the fitness center west.

Observation at the Bus Stop

This time I thought through the rationale for choosing the location more thoroughly. There are three major reasons: first of all, The bus system is an essential transportation for Seattle citizens.; also, the passenger flow of the bus stop fits well for observation because each group usually stays at the stop for ten minutes, a suitable span for observation and then is replaced by new ones; moreover, this site is small enough for the observer to pay attention to the whole area and also big enough that the observer won’t draw too much attention.

Jotting: Second Observation at Bus Stop

I analyzed my observation and sorted out three major practice the passengers performed. The first one is Using Phones While Waiting Practice. The second one is Leaning on the Railing Practice. The third one is Trying to Keep Three Meters Distance from Strangers Practice.

I selected the third practice as the interesting practice. The design challenge related to it is that how can a design motivate people to cross the three meter comfort zone and maybe try to socialize with strangers while waiting for the bus. I chose this practice because I believe the ten minutes waiting time at the bus station can actually turn out to be an interesting socializing time to meet new people.

Reflection and Favorite Part of the Project

During the first observation, we did an activity of naming the practice. Our group chose to name the practice of using phones in line.

Naming A Practice

At first, we ran into the problem of coming up with names that are all too specific. For example, we had names like “texting”, “playing games”, “browsing websites” and etc. Then our TA talked to our group and suggested that it will be better if the names for the practices should be a generalization for it. Therefore, we came up with new ones that generalize the practices more such as “avoiding eye contact” and “using phones to be social”.

After this, I learned not to name my practice too specific when I was doing the second observation.

Furthermore, another learning takeaways I had was how to distinguish between a direct observation and interpretation or prescribing. I didn’t realize how I, as an observer, may lay judgement upon people’s behavior unintentionally because of the bias I have. For example, I may assume a girl and a guy waiting for the bus together as couple based on my daily life experience. Before the class discussion, I would mistake such interpretation as direct observation. But now I am aware of my bias and its possible impact. For example, in the second observation at the bus stop, I learned to put my own interpretation or comment in a parenthesis to distinguish from the direct observation.

Class Note: Direct Observation, Interpretation, and Prescribing

Also, I used to think that bias only have negative influence on research. But after the class discussion I learned that it can also have positive impact because it can help the observer develop empathy toward the observed people.

Class Note: Influence of Bias

My favorite part of this project is the to jotting during the observation. I found it really interesting to give names to the observed people and also I like to write down my comment in parenthesis to make the jotting more interesting. I like the quick sketches too.

It also fascinates me how unexpected patterns can be discovered in people’s behavior through the observation. For example, I never expected the interesting practice of people tend to turn their back toward the window in the Starbucks.

Apply the Skill in the Future

The skill to acknowledge my own bias, be aware of its potential influence on the research and to distinguish it from direct observation is very useful in a lot of my future career path.

The skill not only can be apply to future observation research but also to other procedures of design like usability test which requires the designer to interact with the participants and draw conclusions.

The skill can be useful in daily life too. If we can be aware of the judgement based on our own bias.we have toward others, we may be able to understand and communicate with people better. This helps make cooperation more efficient and effective.