• 6 hours
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Last updated on 9/15/21

Observe Participants

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As a designer, you could find yourself designing for unfamiliar subjects and products. 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, you can 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. Many activities may look easy – take sports, for example – but you realize it's not as simple as you thought when you try it for yourself. 

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. Therefore, 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 and leave some room to veer in different directions.

  • Say you're designing an online e-commerce platform. You want to understand how purchase orders are fulfilled. You decide to call up a friend who agrees to let you work at the fulfillment center her company manages. Experiencing how processes work 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 of 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 a familiar environment. Don't be afraid to get out and shake things up to help open your eyes.

Given different scenarios, always consider how to make your research deeper, gain insights, and learn more about an industry or process. No matter your area of interest or study, 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. You can also find this Design Ethnography video here [4:03 min].

Now, challenge yourself to try something new. Treat it as participant observation. What challenges and limitations did you notice?

Let's recap! 

  • Participant observation means you're observing by participating in an activity.

  • Experiencing may help you think – or rethink – how you can approach a problem. 

  • Whenever possible try out what you're designing; test it on yourself.

  • The experience you're designing doesn't exist yet? No worries! Instead try to look for a situation that replicates a similar activity or action. 

 Whatever experience you choose to start with first, research is nothing without very reliable documentation! Let’s see how to perform this accurately!

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Example of certificate of achievement