Observational methods involve an investigator viewing users
as they work in a field study, and taking notes on the activity
that takes place. Observation may be either direct, where
the investigator is actually present during the task, or indirect,
where the task is viewed by some other means such as through
use of a video recorder. The method is useful early in user
requirements specification for obtaining qualitative data.
It is also useful for studying currently executed tasks and
Allows the observer to view what users actually do in context.
Direct observation allows the investigator to focus attention
on specific areas of interest. Indirect observation captures
activity that would otherwise have gone unrecorded or unnoticed.
It should be noted that observation can be obtrusive and
subjects may alter their behaviour due to the presence of
an observer. Co-operation of users is vital, so the interpersonal
skills of the observer are important. Notes and videotapes
need to be analysed by the note-taker, which can be time consuming
and prevents the task being split up for analysis by a number
- Establish objectives and information requirements. Should
the coverage be in breadth or in depth? It is extremely
important to decide what will happen to the end-product
of this process, and to tailor the whole process to the
requirements of those who will receive the results.
- Gain co-operation of contacts with the observation technique
that you intend to carry out. Establish the times, places,
and people who will be observed. Note that in some countries
the law may prohibit you from taking video films of people
without their explicit written consent.
- Decide on the recording technique you will use. Will you
rely on hand-written notes (traditional), audio, or video
and audio records? Note that the more complete your record,
the longer it takes to analyse. It is useful to be able
to make some kind of first-cut analysis during observation.
- Make sure that those being observed are aware of the reason
for your study and that they do not see you in negative
terms. This is particularly important for mentally impaired
and blind users who may be disturbed by a passive presence
that they are not sure about.
- Run a pilot observation session to get a feel for what
to expect and to test out any observation sheets. This will
also help to judge how long the observation session needs
to be. If the session involves informal activities with
the general public, they may wish to converse with the observer.
Make sure that there is enough time for this.
- Try to be as unobtrusive as possible. Do not let yourself
or your equipment get in the way.
- Note down any events that you do not understand and try
to clarify them with the user as soon as the session is
- Try to be aware of the range of influences that are affecting
- If possible photograph the users work area or the area
of operation as this will act as a reminder of the environmental
- After your observations, write down your first impressions
before the analysis stage later on.
- Analyse, summarise, and report in relation to the objectives
set out at the start.
Other methods of collecting information from users include
interviews, survey questionnaires,
or user participation in context of
use analysis, focus groups
When the observational data has been collected and the report
has been written, ensure that the report makes its way to
those people who will be most affected by it, and that it
has been read. Follow up the initial report distribution within
a week or so to ask if there are any questions or if any explanation
Field studies can be used as methods for generating information
for running a focus group or
setting up a survey questionnaire
that will be distributed to many people. However, they may
sometimes be used as a direct input to design, so that the
next activity to be carried out is either a card
sort / affinity diagramming,
requirements meeting or a paper
Preece, J., Rogers, Y., Sharp, H., Benyon, D., Holland, S.
& Carey, T. (1994). Human-Computer Interaction. Reading
Refer to RESPECT
deliverable D6.2 for information on running observation
sessions involving users with impairments and disabilities,
as well as elderly and young users.