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How to get the most out of observing research

1st October 2019

Observing research poses an opportunity to witness the value of insight and, importantly, attain a deeper understanding of customers and their behaviour.

It also establishes a shared understanding of the findings through collaboration with your research partner and other stakeholders - leading to greater alignment. This can reduce the risk of the findings being misinterpreted.

This article describes what you should expect to see/do when observing research and explains how to get the most value out of doing so.

What if I haven’t been invited to observe research?

You might not have been asked to observe research because it’s impractical to do so. This is especially true of field-based studies where it’s difficult to observe remotely, and direct observation may intimidate participants. 

However, it’s in the researcher’s best interests to accommodate you where possible as it provides a greater opportunity for collaboration.

What should I expect when observing research? 

Many people have preconceptions of research being observed through a one-way mirror, akin to a police interrogation. In actuality, it’s more common for research to be observed via video stream - in the comfort of a meeting room. This ensures that participants cannot hear any conversations happening in the observation room and puts them at ease.

How can I get the most out of observing research? 

Convince all major stakeholders to attend

It takes little to convince those who have previously observed research to attend in the future. Yet, to newcomers, the benefits won’t be quite as clear. We find that it’s better to view the research day as a collaborative session with the purpose of understanding the customer and finding ways to improve their experience.

Even if it’s not possible to attend in person, it’s usually possible to observe the research remotely through video conferencing – which is still valuable.

Keep an open mind

People have a tendency to place emphasis on the findings which confirm their existing assumptions and downplay those which counter them. Known as confirmation bias, this is particularly counterintuitive because it would be unnecessary to research people if they always behaved as expected.

When this biased opinion is repeated, it gains even more significance and increases the chance that other people will accept it as fact. This effect is known as the availability cascade.

Researchers minimise the impact of their biases by being aware of them and by keeping an open mind. Likewise, you can adopt this strategy when observing research to ensure you get the most accurate picture of your customers.

Don’t focus on one participant

Because the first participant is usually perceived to be the most enlightening, people instinctively place more importance on their behaviour. This is known as the primacy effect.

In actual fact, the first participant is likely to expose only a fraction of the insight of all participants. As such, it’s advised that you view as many sessions as possible and treat them with equal significance.

Similarly, when testing a prototype, it’s strongly recommended that you don’t make changes until after the research is analysed. What might improve the experience for one user might be detrimental to others.

It’s only when the findings are collected that you can decide upon the optimal solution. However, this shouldn’t discourage you from imagining possible design changes.

Collaborate with the researcher

Observing research in person opens up opportunities for collaboration with the researcher, allowing you to become much more involved in the research process. There are three main ways in which this collaboration can happen.

Firstly, you can collaborate with the researcher to ensure that questioning is focused in the areas where it will best meet your brief. For example, it is sometimes necessary to move the focus of the research in response to an unexpected finding which requires further clarification.

Secondly, the time between sessions can be used to explore potential solutions to issues observed during the research. In particular, it’s helpful for the researcher to address any business or technical constraints which might have an impact on the feasibility of their proposed solutions.

Finally, by simply discussing the findings between sessions - you can build a shared understanding of them, resulting in a greater alignment within your team. This means less time spent communicating the findings to each other, and more time acting upon them.

Final thoughts

Observing research can be an incredibly enriching and enjoyable experience. It provides an opportunity to actively partake in the design research process and maximise the benefits to your product or service.

It also helps to contextualise design research, this allows you to understand and articulate its value at a higher level, to those who might be sceptical of its value. In my experience, most collaborative research engagements generate positive results much quicker too.

For us, and many of our clients, this cooperative approach is a no-brainer. If you want to get the most out of research engagements and genuinely improve your customers’ experience, we’d recommend observing research and realising its advantages.


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