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Sharpening our research practice

Ethnographic observation

By Ben Cubbon, User Research Practice Lead

What sort of User Research practice do we want to cultivate?

We’re building up our User Research practice at OVO. Over the last few months our user research practice has grown, both in people joining the team and the methods that we are utilising. During this time of growth we started to ask ourselves the question ‘What sort of User Research Practice do we want to cultivate?’ As a team we decided that we wanted to acknowledge that we can refine our practice so that we:

Living up to these values means being the sort of team that takes the time out to practice our craft, so that we become more deliberate in our practice. As a team we are already exploring user needs through depth interviews, moderated and unmoderated usability testing and analysing our analytics. But there are limitations in only using these methods, and they don’t let us respect our participants’ realities.

Learning to observe

User research focuses on understanding people's behaviours and needs, through this we can learn what we should be designing and how. Sounds simple, right?! Afraid not. People are complicated, it's difficult to really understand how people do things and why. We can ask people how they do things and sometimes that works especially if we’re looking to learn about their own understanding of a thing. However as I said people are complicated and we can’t always articulate our behaviours.

To milk an overused example, imagine if I were to ask you how you make a cup of tea. You might start to tell me the steps you take, fill the kettle, boil, grab a mug etc. However, you might not tell me that you get distracted when boiling the kettle and have to reboil it. Or you don’t have many teaspoons so you pour a “teaspoons worth” of sugar into your mug. Not unusual, but you probably wouldn’t describe these aspects because you want to tell me a good story. However, these insights could lead to a kettle that whistles when it’s boiled, or a container that pours exactly a teaspoons worth of sugar every time.

Observation can help us understand many things including how people interact with their worlds. By observing their environments, we can capture the interactions between people and space. Further yet, by observing we begin to spot patterns that help us explain some of the complexities of being human: something we sometimes call culture, sometimes we call religion, and sometimes it's hard to put into words at all.

The patterns that emerge out of observation are essential not only to understanding a little bit more about life but also to design.

Setting ourselves the task of practicing observation

We set ourselves the goal to practice an open ethnographic observation methodology. Since our focus was on practicing the skill, it was important to carve out a time and a place where we could focus on practicing the method rather than on a “valuable” answer. To ensure we stayed true to our goal we agreed on the following objectives:

We want to study what happens in Cabot Circus at lunchtime


Getting to the point at which we could agree on research question taught us:

Factors to consider:

Ethical considerations

Our usual practice when conducting user research is to ask for informed consent from our participants prior to the research taking place. However collecting informed consent from people in Cabot Circus would have been both impractical and would have had an effect on the observations. The Social Research Association (SRA) warn of the difficulties of getting consent in observational studies. They offer 2 alternatives, gaining consent after the observation has taken place or not gaining consent if the observation is taken in a public space and there is no visible reluctance from participants.

Implied consent is described as “Consent which is not expressly granted by a person but rather implicitly granted by a person’s actions and/or circumstances”. Since we were conducting our observations in a public space, we adopted the principle of implied consent and asked ourselves questions at each stage of the study to determine if it was ethical for the research to continue:

  1. Are we identifying the people that we observe?
  2. How will the data we collect be used? (Using vs Publishing)
  3. How is our observing affecting/influencing/impacting people and their behaviours?

What we found out about the method

Location within the environment will affect what you observe. Whilst conducting the observation we all took slightly different positions in Cabot Circus, as a result we all had different stories to share when regrouped. This showed us that as the subject of our study was Cabot Circus through one single observation at one time of day we would not be in a place to answer our question. We would need to factor in the space within the environment and time in our analysis of the data so that we could be open about the biases and limitations.

There are no wrong things to record. As this was our first observation of this subject there was no wrong thing for us to record as each piece of information would help our understanding. The location affecting what we observed was apparent in our field notes. Whereas one location brought with it a high volume of traffic of people the notes recorded tended to capture patterns. In contrast another location that had a lower volume of people created field notes that were more intimate. Neither were wrong.

Expect to feel uncomfortable when you do observation. Apart from the ‘numb bum’ and lack of water the act of observing makes you feel more aware of people watching you also. As you’re observing you have a heightened sense of being observed which may be a feeling that decreases with practice. Additionally the act of recording notes on paper is somewhat unnatural in some circumstances so we experimented with taking notes in what felt to be a more natural way for that environment, such as taking notes on our mobile phone.

Observation might not lead to definitive answers, but it will invite more questions. Although we didn’t come away from the day with a definitive answer on what happens in Cabot Circus at lunchtime, we did come away with more understanding about the subject of cabot circus and many more questions than we had expected. In that sense observation, we felt, is a great tool to add to our practice to inform our hypotheses when designing.

Sharpening how we sharpen our practice

Observation certainly feels like a method that we can use to help give us a fuller picture of who our users are, and their wider contexts. Sharpening our practice is not a one time deal though. Our biggest takeaway is that taking the time out as a team to experiment with a research method is something that we value. It’s allowed us to develop our practice but importantly (as we’re embedded in our product teams) has given us the time to develop our team relationships further.

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