User observation / field studies


Observational methods involve an investigator viewing users as they work in a field study, and taking notes on the activity that takes place. Observation may be either direct, where the investigator is actually present during the task, or indirect, where the task is viewed by some other means such as through use of a video recorder. The method is useful early in user requirements specification for obtaining qualitative data. It is also useful for studying currently executed tasks and processes.


Allows the observer to view what users actually do in context. Direct observation allows the investigator to focus attention on specific areas of interest. Indirect observation captures activity that would otherwise have gone unrecorded or unnoticed.

It should be noted that observation can be obtrusive and subjects may alter their behaviour due to the presence of an observer. Co-operation of users is vital, so the interpersonal skills of the observer are important. Notes and videotapes need to be analysed by the note-taker, which can be time consuming and prevents the task being split up for analysis by a number of people.


  1. Establish objectives and information requirements. Should the coverage be in breadth or in depth? It is extremely important to decide what will happen to the end-product of this process, and to tailor the whole process to the requirements of those who will receive the results.
  2. Gain co-operation of contacts with the observation technique that you intend to carry out. Establish the times, places, and people who will be observed. Note that in some countries the law may prohibit you from taking video films of people without their explicit written consent.
  3. Decide on the recording technique you will use. Will you rely on hand-written notes (traditional), audio, or video and audio records? Note that the more complete your record, the longer it takes to analyse. It is useful to be able to make some kind of first-cut analysis during observation.


  • Make sure that those being observed are aware of the reason for your study and that they do not see you in negative terms. This is particularly important for mentally impaired and blind users who may be disturbed by a passive presence that they are not sure about.
  • Run a pilot observation session to get a feel for what to expect and to test out any observation sheets. This will also help to judge how long the observation session needs to be. If the session involves informal activities with the general public, they may wish to converse with the observer. Make sure that there is enough time for this.
  • Try to be as unobtrusive as possible. Do not let yourself or your equipment get in the way.
  • Note down any events that you do not understand and try to clarify them with the user as soon as the session is completed.
  • Try to be aware of the range of influences that are affecting the user.
  • If possible photograph the users work area or the area of operation as this will act as a reminder of the environmental context.
  • After your observations, write down your first impressions before the analysis stage later on.


  • Analyse, summarise, and report in relation to the objectives set out at the start.

Alternative Methods

Other methods of collecting information from users include interviews, survey questionnaires, or user participation in context of use analysis, focus groups or brainstorming.

Next Steps

When the observational data has been collected and the report has been written, ensure that the report makes its way to those people who will be most affected by it, and that it has been read. Follow up the initial report distribution within a week or so to ask if there are any questions or if any explanation is needed.

Field studies can be used as methods for generating information for running a focus group or setting up a survey questionnaire that will be distributed to many people. However, they may sometimes be used as a direct input to design, so that the next activity to be carried out is either a card sort /affinity diagramming, requirements meeting or a paper prototyping session.

More Information

Preece, J., Rogers, Y., Sharp, H., Benyon, D., Holland, S. & Carey, T. (1994). Human-Computer Interaction. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.

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