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What is observation in user research?

Last updated

27 June 2023


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An old proverb advises that "seeing is believing." As with many quotes from the past, this one still holds water. Observing, whether from the sidelines or as an active participant, offers accurate information about people, their interests, and their core beliefs. 

When it comes to user research, observation is of utmost importance. User research observation allows product teams to get the best insight into customer experience, user experience design, and product design

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What is user research observation?

User research observation is derived from ethnographic research. It’s the process of watching users interact with a specific product or tool and can be conducted through various formats and types of studies. 

Most experts recommend that product teams conduct user research sessions in person, but certain video conferencing or remote session management apps can also allow for carefully controlled research sessions. 

Why is user observation so important?

While research around a product can provide valuable insights into how users will ideally use the product, it can't account for every variable. 

Through user observation research, a product team can get an intimate understanding of how the product's target users will interact with it in a particular situation. For example, a tool designed to manage budgets and day-to-day expenses can be refined through a research session with the tool's ideal users putting it to the test. 

Not only is user observation useful to assess the usability of a product in the product evaluation stage, but it’s also beneficial in the exploratory stage when the product team needs to understand goals, struggles, and the user environment to create relevant use cases or user stories. 

User observation can diminish issues with a product, saving time and money by helping to head off costly bugs. Also, doing user observation research can provide a better user experience and boost your team's credibility, which can benefit your organization's bottom line.

Types of user observation

There are several types of user observation, including controlled observation, covert observation, naturalistic observation, and more. They can all be valuable, depending on your team's overall goals, the research budget, and the amount of time you have to dedicate to user observation studies.

Controlled observation

Controlled observation is the most structured type of user observation. It typically occurs within a lab or other clinical setting and involves the head researcher or project manager explaining the purpose of the session to the research participants. 

Most, if not all, of the variables in the study are carefully controlled, including time, location, surroundings, and participants. The results of controlled observation sessions are typically recorded both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Naturalistic observation

Just as controlled observation takes a very hands-on approach to user observation, the naturalistic approach is very hands-off. In naturalistic observation, the UX researcher will observe study participants without interacting with them at all. 

The goal of this type of observation is to observe and record the user's natural reactions and responses to a product without manipulating the outcome or the process. 

Covert observation

Covert observation isn’t often used in a research setting, simply because it’s conducted in places that have no expectation of privacy, such as a mall or a grocery store. It’s similar to naturalistic observation, except that the primary observer doesn't inform participants before embarking on the session. 


Combining elements of covert and naturalistic observation, shadowing involves the UX researcher observing while participants complete the study in a predetermined, natural environment. Typically in a shadowing setting, users are prepared beforehand through a series of questions. 

By the end of the session, participants will have the information they need to answer the questions. They’ll also have a commentator who can explain to them the overall purpose of the study and what is being observed.

Usability testing

If teams have a product or app that needs a hands-on run-through, usability testing might be just the ticket. Usability testing in user research gets testers to perform a specific task or set of functions while the project lead or head observer listens and takes notes. 

The UX researcher will collect data from this session and use the feedback to refine the product. While the researcher can and often does ask questions throughout the session, the overall goal is to watch participants interact with the product organically, observing their actions and how they respond to the product or app.

Contextual inquiry

Contextual inquiry is a type of user research based entirely on the context of the study participant. The primary focus of the observation is to see how users are performing their tasks, with project coordinators observing participants' natural behavior while they’re going about their pre-determined tasks. 

The analysis from contextual inquiry is helpful for product teams in studying workflow and the tools they used to arrive at their conclusions.

Differences between observation types in user research

While the endgame that researchers hope to achieve might be similar in the various research methods, there are some key differences between them that are important to understand. 

Observation location

Most of the user research methods highlighted above involve observing study participants in their natural setting, whether that's in a public location, such as a mall, or an uncontrolled, neutral environment. The prime exception to this is controlled observation, which often takes place at a special study hall or research lab.

When determining what type of user research observation might be right for you, consider the time and resources available. The type of product you’re testing also plays a significant role here. With some products, it can make mores sense to test them in a controlled environment rather than in a natural, uncontrolled one.

Interaction and proximity to participants

With most user research methods, the researchers will avoid interacting with participants. This is to avoid influencing their behavior and, by proxy, the outcome of the study. Not interacting with participants also means they’re probably more likely to be comfortable and exhibit natural behavior. 

The obvious disadvantage to limited or no interaction is that researchers can’t ask questions on the fly or respond to participants' observations or questions.

Proximity to study participants is also something to consider. Close proximity to the participants allows for a detailed study of how they interact with the product, which can provide you with more in-depth data. However, sitting very close to participants can also be slightly awkward, especially if you and your team are trying to keep interactions to a minimum. 

Sitting at a greater distance means that you aren't expected to maintain a conversation with study participants. Ultimately, if you're trying to analyze detailed tasks, you might want to consider sitting closer. But a study that measures tasks that don't require minute detail could benefit from further proximity. 

Participants' knowledge of being observed

With most of the user research methods, there’s an understanding on the part of study participants that they’re being monitored as part of a project. Most ethical concerns demand that participants be informed ahead of time. However, it’s important to note that when participants know ahead of time that they’re being observed, their behavior can be affected (aka Hawthorne effect). 

The only method where participants are totally unaware that they’re being observed is covert observation. Some experts don't feel comfortable with covert observation for ethical reasons, but others believe that it has a time and place. 

How to do user research observation

Planning ahead is the best way to ensure a successful user research observation project. Here are some important points to note about planning your user research session.


The first step of any user research study should be to figure out what you want to get out of the study. Focus on specific questions that you want answered. If you're working with a larger team on a product launch, narrow in on the most important parts of the product and go from there. You should also be flexible. Understand that nearly every research project goes through ups and downs, and by revising your plan as you go, you'll be better equipped to get your questions answered.

As you’re determining what you want to get out of the study, decide what research method will work best for you. At this point, you should plan any additional research methods you'll need to use, such as interviews, and work them into your overall project timeline. 

It's a good idea to plan for multiple sessions rather than a one-day session. This will allow for more variety, giving you a better understanding of the frequency of certain issues or problems, as well as how participants respond to them. It can also give you more time for reflection, which can be valuable when analyzing participant responses.


Once all the finer points have been decided, and you’ve set a time and date for your user research observation session, you can start conducting your session. If you're conducting naturalistic observation, explain to study participants what the goal of the study is and how you plan to use your time together. You can encourage them to ask questions and make themselves comfortable.

While participants will know that you’re observing them, you should still do your best to stay out of the way during the session. Even so, if you sense that participants are starting to feel uncomfortable, it's perfectly okay to interject or check they have everything they need. 

Avoid talking unnecessarily, as this can break the flow of the study and make it difficult for users to get back into the groove. Take notes throughout the process, and once the session is over, take the time to type out more detailed notes.

If questions occur to you during the study session, write them down in a separate location so that you can easily find them later. If at all possible, record the session and take photos. Some participants may feel uncomfortable with this, so if you get the feeling that photos or videos would be inappropriate, discontinue recording.

Review findings

Throughout your user research observation, you should be taking detailed notes and recording all responses. By the time your study ends, you’ll be able to more thoroughly dissect your findings and start to make a detailed analysis of everything that you recorded during the sessions. 

Once you've cataloged and analyzed the findings on your own, along with the appropriate members of your research team, you can present them to any other project stakeholders.

Recording user actions during observation

Recording user actions during an observation session can provide valuable insight into the product you’re focusing on and the environment where people use it. The tool you use to capture user actions will depend greatly on the method and setting. 

In addition to copious amounts of notes, a video and audio recording setup can be useful. A checklist can also help keep you and the study on task so that you don't forget anything important while the session is in progress.


What are the uses of observation in research?

Observation is a valuable primary research method where researchers collect the data or responses they wish to study. Through observation, a researcher  can personally witness how users interact with a product or technology, gaining valuable insight into how those users feel about the project being tested. 

It can also reveal shortcomings with a product, helping UX teams and developers narrow in on potential problems and bugs before the product launches to a wider audience.

How do you choose users for user research?

To effectively conduct user research, you should work with study participants who represent your target audience or the product's potential users. If possible, the users surveyed should have characteristics similar to the target audience. Look carefully for potential bias since you want to recruit people who will provide honest responses.

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