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3. Natural observation

Observing people in their natural setting with no interference from the investigator to see how users actually behave within a given context.

Man sitting on a sidewalk café


Used during the exploratory phase or to gather key insights into general behaviour.


  • It is important to remain unnoticed. The investigator must take care not to be intrusive and make people uncomfortable
  • Choose locations to observe, rather than specific people to follow. It is a criminal offence in some countries to follow people without their permission
  • Observe group behaviour rather than focusing on any individual. Use in public spaces rather than private areas. Do not stalk, stare, use a telephoto lens or do anything else which might be illegal or disrespectful


  • Gives honest and insightful information. The user is acting in a natural context and is not influenced in any way
  • Can uncover behaviour of which you were not previously aware
  • Can reveal surprising or unexpected events
  • Can capture ordinary interactions between people, products, services and environments
  • Good for seeing surrounding contextual information
  • Will create visual data to act as inspiration
  • Requires little preparation time and can be started at short notice


  • Cannot guarantee a specific event will occur
  • Time-consuming to conduct. You might have to sit for several hours in a particular place
  • Time-consuming to analyse and reveal insights. You may have to review images or video later to notice additional insights
  • Users are not interviewed, so the investigator could misinterpret what they see
  • Cannot capture user personality or history beyond the observed duration
  • Confined to public spaces which will allow you to take photographs or video
  • Difficult to observe vulnerable groups such as children


  1. Choose a location that relates to your research topic and observe how people act within that space.
  2. Be prepared to stay in one location for several hours. Between 1-2 hours is enough to provide some meaningful information or indicate whether the location is suitable.
  3. Pay attention to the context, even information that may not seem important at the time. Try to record points of interest, time intervals, sketch layouts, floor plans, movements and dynamics.
  4. Take a still camera or video camera where allowed. You can capture complex  situations in great detail and examine them later.
  5. Have your camera on and ready as important events may happen at a moment’s notice.
  6. If the observation is task-based, then participate. You will experience the context at first hand and blend in with other people.


  • Forming an opinion quickly on a large topic such as looking at the problems people have whilst travelling through the city
  • Gathering insight on general behaviour, actions, interactions, procedure and context rather than gaining specific information from individuals