As designers, you very well could find yourself designing for subjects and products you know nothing about. But that's the exciting thing about design – you can learn about many different industries through your work. If you don't know how something works or understand a certain "world" one of the best things you can do is get out and immerse yourself in it. Don't just watch as an outsider, but dive in and try something for yourself.
Participant observation means you're observing by participating in an activity. If seeing is believing, doing is building empathy. A lot of activities may look easy – take sports for example – but when you try it for yourself you realize "Ah, that's not as simple as I thought it'd be."
Whenever possible try out what you're designing; test it on yourself. Perhaps the experience you're designing doesn't exist, yet. That's fine! Instead try to find a situation that mimics a similar activity or action. The goal is to learn and inform.
One of the biggest challenges of participant observation is reminding yourself that you are there to learn from the experience, rather than getting distracted in the activity itself. You need to remain a conscious observer.
When does it make sense to do participant observation? Here are a few contexts that are just a start:
You want to develop a gaming app. You know how you and your friends play games on your phone, but you want to see how others interact with them. You hear about a big Comic Con convention in a nearby city and decide to go. Before you know it, you get off the bus and get a notification for a Pokemon Go raid nearby. Right away you're interacting with other players in real life. A few minutes later there's another raid. It's different from the ones in your city. You also notice the different phones the players are using. Then you end up at lunch with some of your new friends and continue talking to them. In research you need to have a plan but also leave some room open to veer in different directions.
Say you're designing an online e-commerce platform. You want to better understand how purchase orders are fulfilled. You decide to call up a friend, who agrees to let you work at the fulfilment center her company manages. Experiencing how processes work "in the real world" may help you think – or re-think – how you can approach a problem in the digital sphere.
You want to design a better mop. You ask the office cleaning team if you can spend a couple nights helping them clean (free help!). You're not only completing the actions yourself, but you're able to observe how other people work. (Is someone holding the small of their back like they're in pain? Or is someone wearing a special brace?). You see things within the context you may not have noticed had you not tried it for yourself. Sure you could mop at home, but you may be distracted by an environment you're already familiar with. Don't be afraid to get out and shake things up to help open your eyes.
Given different scenarios, always consider how you can make your research deeper in order to really gain insights and learn more about an industry or process. No matter what your area of interest or study is, you can apply ethnography and participant observation to any subject matter.
Get a peek inside a research project to learn about fish. The team was also able to integrate participant observation by visiting fisheries in order to help design for insights. [4:03 min]
Now, challenge yourself to go try something new. Treat it as participant observation. What challenges and limitations did you notice?