How to conduct Participant Observations?

What are participant observations? #

Participant observations is a qualitative ethnographic user research method where you observe a user or a group with a shared identity by actively participating in the activities. You immerse yourself and record the daily activities of the participants in as many sessions as possible. 

Field Research Study Methods-UX

When is participant observation research most useful? #

Participant observations are most useful in the discovery phase of your user-centered design project because you will be able to see and understand what people are doing and compare it with what they say, as subconsciously people act differently from what they are described. It is important that you focus on observing without evaluation. Instead, you should only analyze the data by finding clear patterns. 

Regular observation sessions provide useful feedback to your team which can be used for constant product improvement. They help you to create and adjust personas.

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

  1. Passive participant observation.
    You observe and record the behaviors of your participants in their own environment without conversing or interacting with them in any way. You choose public locations such as hotels, coffee shops, train stations, or on the Internet (netnography).
  2. Active participant observation.
    You actively immerse yourself in the daily lives of your chosen participants where you observe and record their activities, rituals, routines, and habits. You can choose to limit your interaction to only interviews, or engage in all aspects. Examples of studies are lived for long periods of time among different ethnic, cultural, or religious communities.
  3. Covert and overt participant observation.
    You observe your chosen participants in a public location without them knowing about it. 
  4. Covert and active participant observation.
    You actively participate in the daily life of your chosen participants without them knowing about it. The positive outcome is that participants don’t know you are there to observe them, so you catch them in their natural behavior. 
  5. Covert and passive participant observation.
    You observe your chosen participants in a public location without them knowing about it. 
  6. Open and active participant observation.
    You openly and actively participate in the daily life of your chosen participants. The negative outcome is that participants might change their behavior knowing they are being observed and recorded. 
  7. Open and passive participant observation.
    You openly and passively participate in the daily life of your chosen participants.  

What are the pros vs cons of a participant 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 participant 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.