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1. Controlled observation

Observing people going about their normal activities with their consent. Presenting them with a task or design and observing how they complete or interact with it.

Senior users with a vending machine


Used during the exploratory phases and evaluative stages.


  • Choose the level of control. Are you observing the people performing everyday activities in their natural settings, or are you introducing them to a new environment and asking them to complete specific tasks?
  • Decide on whether the observation space is controlled or no: for example indoors or outdoors, public or private
  • Choose level of interaction between observer and user. Decide how much the investigator may be involved or whether the user will be left on their own


  • Can understand user intentions and opinions by asking them questions during the observation
  • Can recreate or simulate specific events of interest 
  • The user can be asked to repeat specific actions 
  • Good for understanding and capturing the natural context and external influences on the user
  • Can uncover insights that the user is not aware of themselves and then probe them further
  • A good way of seeing and documenting procedures or observing how people respond to different situations


  • People tend to behave differently when they know they are being observed. You might not see their natural behaviour
  • People can become self-conscious and skew responses
  • Difficult to recreate complex or group interactions
  • The way that a task or scenario is presented by the investigator can influence the response
  • Time-consuming to conduct observation and gather information
  • Time-consuming to analyse all the information gathered
  • Can be difficult to record the observation using a still camera or video camera in certain locations or situations


  1. Plan your strategy for conducting the observation. Will you observe people going about their everyday business or will you recreate or simulate a particular event and set them tasks to complete?
  2. When shadowing, only participate if it does not distract or unduly influence the user.
  3. When simulating an event or activity, try to recreate natural conditions wherever possible. Choose your context and locations carefully.
  4. Do not demonstrate when presenting tasks or scenarios for an individual to complete. They will then just do it in the way you have shown them.
  5. Ask users to verbalise their thoughts during a task or process. This can help to understand their perceptions and decision-making.
  6. When a user needs direction, try to assist without prompting them.
  7. Take a camera, or preferably a video camera, as it allows you to capture complex situations easily. Recordings can then be examined in greater detail at a later stage.
  8. When filming, try to set up the camera in a location where it is obvious and will soon be forgotten by the user.


  • Interview: finding out about the user’s will help to contextualise the observed responses and encourage the user to give explanations


  • Experiencing the user's daily life and capturing the broader context
  • Detailed understanding of a specific task, context, or action from a user perspective
  • Giving feedback on existing designs and activities