Observation is the recording of the natural world, often associated with a science-based (positivic) approach to research. Observation is qualitative, until some form of metric or recording mechanism is introduced. It may be counting a change in phenomena over a set period of time. (Wilson et al 2002:69-73) Observation is also part of ethnography, which is primarily interpretation of the real-world. (Cohen et al 2007: 166-190)

Formal research methods of observation and interview have been found to offer the most cost-effective ‘snap-shot’ of the needs and aspirations of the end user. Task analysis, alongside interview, will provide the designer with much of the information required to gain enough insight to propose a design solution. The observation may be remotely from a video tape or key moments in a task recorded via photographs or even annotated stick figures. Teleconferencing, email or social chat software, such as Skype, may be used to discuss issues. It should be noted that ethical use of social networks as a focus for research is an up and coming issue, as it has not been rigorously ‘policed’; being such a recent phenomenon.

The translation from observation through human senses or machine sensors can lead to bias, through the choice of coding or measure. Bias can also be introduced through observers ‘see what they expect to see’; their interpretation being influenced towards confirmation of the observer’s hypothesis or background motivation for the study. A combination of human and machine observations (video recording) can be used to cross-reference data collection and analysis.

Other methods that use or may be combined with observation are:

  • Task analysis
  • Scientific experiment
  • Ethnography
  • Participatory design
  • Interview

Useful links

Cohen, L., L.Mannion, and K.Morrison 2007. Research methods in education. 6th ed. London, New York: Routledge.

Creswell, J.W. and Plano-Clark, V.L., 2006. Designing and conducting mixed methods research. Sage, London.

Langford, J., McDonagh, D., 2003. Focus groups supporting effective product development. Taylor & Francis, London.

Lidwell, W., Holden, K., Butler, J., 2003. Universal principles of design: 100 ways to enhance usability, influence perception, increase appeal, make better design decisions, and teach through design, Rockport, Gloucester.

Martin, B., Hanington, B., 2012. Universal methods of design: 100 ways to research complex problems, develop innovative ideas, and design effective solutions, Rockport, Beverly.

Torrens, GE (2011) Universal Design: empathy and affinity. In Karwowski, W, Soares, M, M, Stanton, A, N, Eds, (ed) Handbook of Human Factors and Ergonomics in Consumer Products, CRC Press, pp.233-248 Available at: (http://www.crcnetbase.com/doi/abs/10.1201/b10950-19), Accessed: [23/09/015]

Torrens, GE and Black, K (2011) Equipment design in inclusive physical activity and disability sport. In Riobas, AC, Stamatakis, E, Black, K (ed) Design for Sport, Gower, pp.153-178, Available at: (https://dspace.lboro.ac.uk/dspace-jspui/handle/2134/9025), Accessed: [23/09/2015]

Wilson, J. R., and E. N. Corlett. 1995. Evaluation of human work: A practical ergonomics methodology. 2nd ed. London: Taylor & Francis.