In plain sight

How observation can help unearth insights on behaviors - and why that matters.

Photo by Nick Hillier on Unsplash

observation as a tool

If you're like me, the idea of observation makes you think field work. Hit-the-payment, people-watch-in-a-cafe kind of field work. And like me, you might be surprised to learn that's not the only way - and sometimes not even the most appropriate way - to practice observation.

Two especially underrated approaches? Virtual observation and participant observation.

Participant observation may seem odd at first - if you're participating in something, how can you be observing other people? And maybe the answer is you don't. What better way to understand the challenges and barriers of an experience then by going through it yourself?

Wait a minute, that sounds a lot like empathy... 💡! Connect the dots, and suddenly it all makes sense. In the design thinking framework, participant observation is a useful tool for understanding people better.

So what about virtual observation?

monkey see, monkey do

Halfway through a second virtual observation session, I was hit with déjà vu. I was viewing used textbooks on a Facebook group full of students trying to find affordable books for classes. 

It wasn't an unfamiliar situation - I'd been in their shoes, as both the seller and buyer, more than once. The only odd thing was I was spending 45+ minutes scrolling. (Full disclosure: that's 44+ minutes longer than I would have normally scrolled.)

What caught my attention was actually how normal it was to observe others. 

Observation informs our decisions and influences us - whether we also put a post in the group, how we interact with others in the group, and even the language we use. We take cues from others. 

For example, ISO and OBO were common terms used by the group's members meaning 'in search of' and 'or best offer,' respectively.

Realizing this insight brought me to another thought - virtual observation, in all its asynchronous glory, is a bit like time travel. It's almost a superpower to be able to see the most recent posts (live!) as well as posts from last May. I can see when people reach out, and if they ever get a response. I can see what gets sold, and what doesn't.

If I ever doubted observation as a valid research approach before, I don't anymore. Because I get it now - observation gives you the macro picture.

the limits of observation

The biggest frustration was only being able to guess at people's thoughts and motivations. Although tempting, I can't explain what I see - my own bias colors any assumptions and interpretations I make.

Still, the shortcomings of observation as a tool are by far more obvious than the advantages. That makes me think most people don't understand how to use observation as a tool. It's not meant for figuring what people are thinking - which is my natural instinct, to find the why - so much as it's meant for noting down what people are doing. 

And that doesn't seem powerful until we remember what people think and what people do aren't the same.

in sum -

  • Observation can happen anywhere. There's traditional physical locations to consider, but also online spaces (social media/apps) and experiences (either personally, or through photos/videos from willing volunteers).
  • What people say and what people do aren't always the same. Observation can help you see the big picture, especially with repeat behaviors and other patterns.
  • From patterns come themes! These themes are great next steps to pursue
In Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, Sam Gosling suggests that "three broad mechanisms — identity claims, feeling regulators, and behavioral residue — [...] connect people to the spaces that surround them."

While Gosling was mainly referring to physical spaces, his ideas apply to virtual spaces as well. People decorate their profiles, measure how they speak and what they post online, and filter their newsfeed to shape their experience of virtual spaces.

All of this suggests that, whether physically or online, there are endless clues hidden in plain sight.