Covert Naturalistic Observation
So, how can we observe natural behavior if our mere presence affects what people do? Don’t tell them that you’re observing them. At this point, you may be thinking: Wait a minute. Isn’t that unethical? I’ll get to that, so please read on.
This type of study is known in psychology, anthropology, and other social sciences as covert naturalistic observation. It is the opposite of the techniques we typically use, which are forms of overt naturalistic observation. Being covert means observing behaviors in their natural contexts without any intervention or influence by the researcher and without participants knowing that they’re being observed.
Covert naturalistic observation isn’t a completely new idea. In addition to its use in the social sciences, it’s practiced by law enforcement agencies, spies, and amateur people-watchers all over the world. But for some reason, its use in user experience research is somewhat rare.
What Are Its Advantages?
By ensuring that participants are unaware that we’re observing them, we eliminate any effect that we have on participant behavior—the Hawthorne Effect. We can see what people really do rather than what they say they do or what they show us when they know we’re studying them. What better way to see natural behavior than to go out and observe what is really happening outside a study?
What Are Its Disadvantages?
Being covert requires you to hide the fact that you’re observing, which makes it more difficult to observe and take notes. So it’s not very useful for studying interactions up close—such as making detailed observations of a person using a user interface. It’s more suited for observing actions and behaviors that you can see from a distance.
Being covert eliminates your ability to ask questions or discuss what you’ve observed with participants. So it can leave you with additional questions and require you to make assumptions.
In the social sciences, some have criticized covert research as being ethically unsound, deceptive, and an invasion of privacy.  Without the knowledge that they are being observed, participants can’t provide their informed consent, and they have no choice about whether to participate. However, despite these objections, covert naturalistic observation has its advocates who argue that, in the right situations, there are ways to do this research ethically. I’ll discuss those later in this column.
When Should You Use Covert Naturalistic Observation?
The best application of covert naturalistic observation is for studying the behavior and interactions of groups of people in public places. So it’s ideally suited for research projects for service design, workflow redesign, and process redesign. Some examples of questions to which covert research could provide answers include the following:
- How can we speed up the process and improve the passenger experience of airport security lines?
- How can we make the emergency-room waiting area a better experience for patients and those who accompany them?
- How can we improve customers’ shopping experience and increase sales in our clothing store?
As I mentioned earlier, being covert is difficult when you need to see details close up—such as how people use a user interface. Overt methods such as contextual inquiry are better suited for those types of studies.
Tips on Covert Naturalistic Observation
Like most user research methods, covert naturalistic observation is more complex than it may seem at first glance. Just as overt observation is more than just watching people do things and asking questions about what they do, covert observation is more than just people-watching. The following tips will help you to get the most out of this method of research.
Before you go out to observe, learn as much as you can about the domain that you’re studying, the characteristics of user groups, and the behaviors and tasks you’ll be observing. Review any previous research to which you have access. By being informed, you’ll know more about what to look for, and you’ll be better able to make sense of what you see.
Plan What You Want to Observe
If, for example, you wanted to study what people do at the airport while waiting for a flight, it would be a mistake to think, I’ll just go to the airport and see what people do. Without planning in advance what your study will focus on, you would quickly become overwhelmed by the amount of information you’d take in. This makes it especially important for you to plan what you want to learn, the questions you want to answer, and how you’re going to gather the information you need. Knowing what to look for makes it easier to focus your observation on what’s important and discard the rest.
Do Some Reconnaissance of the Location
As part of your planning, scout out the location ahead of time. Get answers to the following questions to determine where and when to observe people and how to appear natural and remain unnoticed.
- What’s the layout like?
- Where are the best places from which to observe?
- What’s the activity level like at certain times of the day?
- When is the best time to observe the behavior you want to see?
- What are people doing and what are they wearing?
If appropriate, notify the management or security of your research. For example, if you’re observing people in an airport, the customers might not notice you, but security might. It’s better to let them know what you’re doing in advance.
Observe as a Group
There are advantages to having two or more people observe as a group:
- Each person can observe behavior in a different location and focus on different people.
- Each person can focus on observing different behaviors or answering different research questions.
- You’re less likely to miss something.
- You have someone to discuss your observations with.
If you work in a group, be sure to coordinate where each person will be, what each person will do, and what each person should focus on.
Observe During Several Shorter Sessions
Instead of one long observation session, it’s usually better to break your research into several shorter observation sessions. Doing shorter sessions has the following advantages:
- You can see what happens over several sessions—perhaps at different times of the day, observing different people, and observing different situations.
- You can see whether there are repetitive behaviors, situations, and patterns that recur over several sessions.
- It’s easier to remain mentally sharp, observant, and avoid fatigue.
- You’re less likely to be overwhelmed with too much information, so it’s easier to remember what you observed.
- You’d appear more natural and would be less likely to get caught if you didn’t hang around too long.