How to conduct Direct Observations?

What are direct observations? #

Direct observations is a user research method where you collect data about how your users interact with your product. You simply take notes while you observe their behavior in their natural setting without interfering.

The observations can be overt (direct observations) where the users know that they are being observed for example when you watch interactions, processes, or behaviors as they occur when watching a medical doctor. Or covert (indirect observations) the users don’t know they are being observed, and you are concealed, for example when you watch the results of interactions, processes, or behaviors of people shopping in a supermarket.  

You will get the best results via covert observations because the users are more likely to behave naturally if they do not know they are being observed, but because of ethical challenges overt are more common.    

Field Research Study Methods-UX

When is direct observation research most useful? #

Direct observations are most useful in the explore phase of your user-centered design project because you will be able to validate the prototypes of your upcoming design or feature through usability tests. To avoid affecting the users and creating bias in the results you should not interfere in any way during the sessions, neither asking questions nor directing them. 

If you want to understand the sequence of a real-life task conduct field research observations in the discovery phase. If you are looking to launch a new product or feature conduct online usability tests in a lab. You will get the best results by combining the observations with traditional interviews at the end of the sessions. 

Use the direct observation method when you:

  1. want to understand an ongoing process or situation.
  2. need to gather data on individual behaviors or interactions between people.
  3. need to know about a physical setting such as an event or activity.
  4. when data collection from individuals such as questionnaires or interviews is not a realistic option.

As User Researchers, we are mostly interested in people’s behavior so observing is the most important method because it provides us with the most accurate information about people, their tasks, and their needs.

What kind of direct observation methods can I choose from? #

Conduct direct observations

  1. Usability testing
    Usability testing involves both observing and listening to participants as they attempt to complete tasks with a user interface. Participants may think aloud, and you can ask questions to better understand what they’re thinking and doing, but the primary value is in observing their actions.
  2. Contextual Inquiry Contextual inquiry means observing people in their natural environment, as they demonstrate their typical tasks. Research participants lead their own session, explaining what they are doing, but the primary value is in observing the details of the ways they normally perform their tasks.
  3. Naturalistic Observation
    In naturalistic observation, the researcher attempts to observe one or more people unobtrusively, without interacting with them. 
  4. Shadowing
    In shadowing, the researcher follows participants around as they perform their daily activities. The researcher may simply observe, without interacting with the participant, or a session may be more interactive, with participants talking about what they are doing and the researcher asking questions, similar to a contextual inquiry. The goal and primary value of this technique is to observe people’s natural activities.
  5. Participant Observation Participant observation is a traditional ethnographic method in which the researcher joins a group and participates in their activities. The researcher observes and interacts with group members while performing the same activities. For example, a researcher might become a call-center operator for a few days, with the goal of better understanding such operators’ work and experiences.

What are the pros vs cons of a direct observation study?


  • You get to collect data where and when an event or activity is actually occurring
  • You don’t need to rely on people’s willingness or ability to provide information and availability. 
  • You get to directly see what users do rather than relying on what they say they did.


  • Bias
  • Time-consuming and costly.
  • Users are not behaving naturally when they know they are being directly observed. 
  • You can’t collect data and understand around why people behave as they do. 

What should I observe? #

Observation involves carefully looking, listening, and thinking about what you’re seeing and hearing, so you can pick out significant details. Based on your planning, you might focus on the following elements:

  • user characteristics
  • tasks and the individual steps involved
  • workflows between people
  • interactions between people
  • interruptions
  • tools, technology, and other artifacts that participants use
  • sources of information
  • problems participants encounter
  • environmental factors such as layout, traffic patterns, where people congregate, temperature, noise levels, and lighting

You can use the AEIOU framework by Rick Robinson, Ilya Prokopoff, John Cain, and Julie Pokorn:

  • activities—goal-directed actions, activities, and processes
  • environments—personal or shared workspaces or common areas
  • interactions—between people and objects
  • objects—things people have in their environment and use in their activities
  • users—the people you’re observing

direct observation AEIOU framework

What are the steps to conducting a direct observation study? #

Field Research Study Steps-UX Research
  1. Define the subject and the purpose of your study. What are you and your team trying to discover by conducting a field study?
  2. Define your hypothesis.
  3. Choose the right research method, a mix of surveys, interviews, case studies, and observation.
  4. Identify a research site and visit it.
  5. Write the research plan.
  6. Start collecting data by observing the user’s interaction with the context.  
    – try to be objective
    – take notes
    – record sessions
    – take pictures
  7. Analyze the data.
  8. Present and share the findings with your team.