Observation is in many ways similar to several other methods, such as think-aloud technique, task analysis, hard case technique, and scenarios. The core of observation is observing what someone does while they are doing it (in the case of direct observation) or inferring what they have done from the evidence they leave behind (indirect observation). Direct observation may be undisclosed (where the person being observed does not know that they are being observed) or disclosed (where the person does know that they are being observed). Undisclosed observation requires more stringent ethical clearance than disclosed observation.
In this tutorial, we focus on disclosed direct observation.
Advantages of observation
What you need:
Tip: Don’t let them see the material until you’ve finished your demonstration, or they’ll start doing the task before you’ve finished explaining.
You can use the outputs from observation (e.g. concepts identified as important) as inputs for other methods, for instance within visual analogue scales. For example, if the participant often looks uncertain during the task where they are being observed, you might choose to use a visual analogue scale question about how clear or how difficult the task is.
Observation can be used to identify places where hesitations and errors often occur, so that the causes can be designed out of the system (whether the system is a software, bureaucratic, or physical system).
Copyleft Hyde & Rugg 2021
Many events that researchers want to study are rarely visible – whether because they’re simply rare, or because they’re normally kept hidden. Indirect observation allows you observe something that’s caused by what you want to study, as opposed to observing directly whatever you want to study.
An example is a study of premarital sexual behaviour in the 16th century. Direct observation wasn’t an option to the 20th century researchers who conducted that study, but they did have access to 16th century records of marriages and of births. They also had access to church records. So by indirect observation, they were able to conclude that in the community they studied, an unmarried woman of childbearing age was more likely to be sexually active than to be a regular churchgoer.
Most indirect observation is more mundane; it often involves activities such as looking at patterns of wear on objects; that can tell you a surprising amount about its use. Indirect observation is a handy approach to have in your toolbox.