Participatory Observation

Practical Usability

Moving toward a more usable world

A column by Jim Ross
January 13, 2014

In the field of UX design research, we’ve borrowed and adapted many research methods from anthropology to enable us to better understand people and their needs. But we haven’t adopted one signature method of anthropology: participant observation. When we go into the field to observe people performing tasks, we remain outside observers, asking questions and taking notes, but not getting involved in their activities ourselves.

Anthropologists and sociologists often practice participant observation, in which they join a group as a participating member to get a first-hand perspective of the group and their activities. Instead of observing as an outsider, they play two roles at once—objective observer and subjective participant. Participating in the group gives them the ability to experience events in the same way other group members experience them. These are the types of studies that probably come to mind when you think about anthropology or sociology—for example, an anthropologist goes to live with a tribe in the Amazon rainforest or a sociologist moves into a housing project to learn about poverty. These are participant observation studies.

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The term participant observation may be confusing to those of us in user experience. We think of participants as the people who we study, and we think of observation as the way we study them. So to us, participant observation sounds like what we do already—observing participants. But in this case, participant means that the researcher is an active participant in an activity while observing it.

Does Participant Observation Make Sense for Design Research?

Participant observation studies have provided some of the most valuable insights in anthropology and sociology. So why haven’t we adopted participant observation in design research? If we look at its advantages and disadvantages, perhaps we can determine whether we can adapt this method to the needs of design research projects.

What Are Its Advantages?

In comparison to pure observation studies that don’t involve any participation by the researcher, participant observation provides the following advantages:

  • Participating in a group as a new member requires the researcher to learn about the group and its activities in much greater detail than when simply observing and taking notes.
  • Performing activities with the group gives the researcher greater empathy, as well as a much more in-depth understanding of the group members and their activities.
  • As a new group member, the researcher often notices things that group members take for granted, such as group rules and norms.
  • Group members often feel more comfortable and act more naturally when a researcher participates in their activities rather than just sitting back and observing silently.
  • As a group member, the researcher spends more time with the participants and gets to observe them in more varied situations.
  • Participating eliminates the formality of scheduled research sessions, in which participants expect to answer questions or demonstrate specific tasks. The researcher is simply with the group all day, observing and participating in whatever happens.

What Are Its Disadvantages?

The following disadvantages of participant observation have probably prevented its wider adoption in design research:

  • It can be very time consuming.
  • It generates a vast amount of data.
  • By participating in activities, the researcher can inadvertently influence the other participants’ behavior.
  • Active involvement in the group can cause the researcher to lose objectivity and may lead to bias.
  • It can take a long time for the group to accept the researcher as a member and become comfortable with him or her.
  • It’s difficult to participate, observe, and take notes at the same time.
  • The researcher has to be careful not to cross the you-are-not-the-user line and start designing for his or her own wants and needs.
  • The need for specialized domain knowledge makes it difficult to participate in some groups. For example, it might be easy to participate in a group of fast-food workers, but it wouldn’t be easy for most researchers to join a group of molecular biologists.

For What Types of Projects Is Participant Observation Appropriate?

Participant observation is useful whenever the goal is to study a user group and how they use a product, system, or service whose use consumes a large portion of their time. Therefore, it’s ideal for service design, process redesign, and business application design projects. It’s especially useful in learning about groups of employees, their activities, the systems they use, and the services they perform. For example, participant observation would be a great method for learning about

  • customer-service personnel working in a call center
  • nurses in an urgent-care center
  • fast-food workers and the customer experience of a fast-food restaurant
  • real-estate agents

Because participant observation is group focused, it wouldn’t be the right research method to use for activities that people primarily do alone or that they do infrequently—for example, consumers making purchases on an ecommerce site. Since people shop online alone and shopping takes up only a small percentage of their time, it would make more sense to do a series of contextual inquiries in this case. However, participant observation would make sense in studying a corporate procurement group making purchases for their company on B2B commerce sites.

How to Conduct Participant Observation

By this point, you may agree with me that participant observation sounds like a good way to learn about a group of people and their tasks, but you may be wondering how you could realistically apply this method within the tight timelines and budgets of typical UX design projects. So let’s look at how to do participant observation within the context of UX design research.

Do Some Initial Research

First, to help you plan your study, do some initial research to learn about the domain, the users, and their activities. Look at any previous research that others have done on the topic. This will help you to determine where to focus your research. Later on, your being well informed will help you to make sense of what you observe.

Plan Your Study

As with any study, you should first determine what your research goals are and the questions that you want to answer. However, doing participant observation requires that you address a few additional considerations.

Plan What to Observe

Unlike an anthropologist studying a tribe in New Guinea, you typically won’t have much time to conduct your design research, so limit your focus. Determine the groups, the people, and the activities that you want to observe. Since you can’t observe everything, choose a representative set of activities to observe and determine when would be the best times to be present to witness those activities.

Determine How Much Time to Spend

Consider how much time you can spend on participant observation within the practical constraints of your project schedule. The time that you would need depends on how many different groups you must observe, the number of people in each group, the number and types of activities you need to watch, when those activities happen, and the complexity of the domain.

Decide on the Number of Observers

You can conduct participant observation either alone or with two or more other observers. If each observer participates in a different group, your data will have greater reliability. Observing only one group doesn’t reveal whether characteristics, behaviors, actions, and situations are unique to that group or common across groups. One observer is also more susceptible to bias and the subjective interpretation of data. Combining data from multiple observers helps you to overcome such difficulties. Plus, it gives you other people with whom you can discuss the findings.

Determine Whether Your Participation Will Be Overt or Covert

You can conduct participant observations either overtly, informing the group members about your study and getting their consent to participate, or covertly, joining the group without letting them know that you’re a researcher conducting a study. Each approach has its own advantages and disadvantages, but for design research, overt participant observation is more appropriate.

On the other hand, the primary advantage of being covert is that you can see the most natural behavior in participants. Since you’re pretending to be a regular group member, your presence won’t make the other group members uncomfortable. And you’ll avoid the Hawthorne effect—the tendency of people to act differently when they know that they’re being observed as part of a study.

However, covert participant observation has more disadvantages than advantages. Being covert requires deception and deprives the participants of the opportunity to provide their informed consent. Maintaining your cover is a burden on you as a researcher, and it makes it almost impossible for you to take notes. Also, in some situations, it’s impossible for a researcher to pretend to be a group member because he or she is so obviously different from the group—either in physical characteristics such as age, gender, or ethnicity or in knowledge or experience.

For design research, it’s much better to conduct overt participatory observation. Being honest makes it easier for you to join and become an accepted member of the group, openly take notes, and ask questions. While you may not fit the profile of the typical group member, that won’t matter if they know you’ve joined the group because you’re doing a study. The problem of participants’ being uncomfortable or acting differently because they know they’re part of a study fades over time, as the group becomes more comfortable with you. In fact, people often feel more comfortable with a participant researcher than with a researcher who just sits back, observes, and takes notes.

Join the Group

To join a group, you usually need the help of a gatekeeper or person in charge of the group, who can introduce you to the group and help you to gain acceptance. Often your client can either play this role or introduce you to a gatekeeper. Once you join the group, find key informants within the group—people who can provide important information about the group, its members, and the cultural context. These people can introduce you to the group and give you legitimacy in other members’ eyes.

Build Rapport

It’s very important for you to build a good rapport with group members, so they’ll feel comfortable with your presence and trust you enough to share sensitive information with you. Being open and honest about your study and how you’ll protect participants’ privacy and maintain confidentiality are good first steps toward gaining trust. Building rapport also involves listening, being respectful, showing empathy, and behaving according to group mores.

Observe as You Participate

Participant observation is different from any other type of research in that it involves participating in addition to observing. It can be challenging to be an active participant, while also trying to observe the action.

Be Discreet

Even if you’ve been completely open with group members that you’re doing a study, you should still be discreet. You want them eventually to forget the fact that they’re being observed, and you don’t want to influence the group. So try to blend in by dressing and acting like the other members. Participating doesn’t mean that you should be the loudest, most outgoing member of the group.

Take Only Brief Notes

When you’re participating, you can’t take detailed notes. Instead, jot down brief notes whenever you can, then expand on them after the activity is over. What you should note depends on your research questions, but in general, some things to capture are

  • the people
  • social behavior
  • frequency of actions
  • duration of actions
  • body language
  • interactions between people
  • tools and artifacts that participants use
  • environmental factors

You can also record audio or video, but you may not have much time for reviewing your recordings. Use them only as a backup rather than relying on them exclusively. Audio recording is usually a better option because it’s more unobtrusive and less likely than video to make people uncomfortable. Be sure to let participants know that you’ll be recording their activities, and always protect their privacy.

Expand Your Notes as Soon as Possible

Try to get away from the group at intervals to type up your notes, before you forget what you’ve seen. Expand your notes to include as many details as possible. It’s easier to remember details immediately after shorter sessions, so try to schedule breaks at several points during the day so you can type up your notes. Even if you’re doing overt research, it’s best to type up your detailed notes away from the group, to avoid reminding them that they’re part of a study.

Analyze Iteratively

If you wait until the end of your research to analyze the results, you might become overwhelmed by all of the information you’d have to wade through. Instead, analyze your findings at various points throughout your research as an iterative process. As themes and questions emerge, seek more information about them during subsequent research sessions. Consider whether you should make any changes to your research. Always examine your conclusions to determine whether you’re developing any biases or your presence is affecting what participants are doing. 

Remember, You’re Participating, but You’re Not a Participant

Use your own experience as a participant as a way to better understand what group members do, but don’t treat your own experiences in the same way that you would treat data from actual participants. Keep reminding yourself that, although you’re participating in the group, you’re not a research participant. Remember, you are not the user.

End the Study

When you think you have enough information to answer your research questions, it’s definitely time to end the study. In reality, however, project timeframes and budgets may determine how long your research can take.

When you leave the group, be sure to thank the participants and get their contact information, in case you want to get in touch with them later to ask them additional questions. During your analysis of the findings, you may need answers to more questions. Or you may want to conduct additional research activities with group members in the future.

Combine Participant Observation with Other Methods

Participant observation can be even more effective when other methods complement this approach. Before doing participant observation, interviews with the group’s gatekeepers and key informants are a good way to get up to speed on the domain, the group, the members, and their tasks and activities that you might want to observe. This information will help in planning your research.

During and after a participant observation study, you can use interviews to get answers to your questions and additional insights into the things that you’ve observed. You can use contextual inquiries to gain a more in-depth understanding of a particular process. If some things were too difficult to observe while participating in activities, you can go back to the group as a non-participating observer.


It may seem odd to participate in your own UX design research because it seems to violate the common UX maxim “you are not the user.” But participant observation is a well-established method in other fields of research. What other approach provides a more in-depth and empathetic understanding of a group of people than joining them and participating in their daily activities? When we step outside our typical role of dispassionate observer and try walking in the shoes of our users, what does that tell them about our commitment to understanding them? What might we learn about them and ourselves? It can’t hurt to try and find out. 


DeWalt, Kathleen Musante, and Billie R. DeWalt. Participant Observation: A Guide for Fieldworkers. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.

Family Health International. “Qualitative Research Methods: A Data Collector’s Field Guide. Module 2: Participant Observation.”PDF Office of Assessment, Duke Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, undated. Retrieved November 27, 2013.

Kawulich, Barbara B. “Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method.” Forum: Qualitative Social Research, May 2005. Retrieved November 27, 2013.

Saint-Germain, Michelle A. “Data Collection Strategies II: Qualitative Research.” PPA 696 Research Methods. California State University, Long Beach, July 8, 2002. Retrieved November 27, 2013.

Sommer, Barbara A. “Participant Observation.” UC Davis, University of California, 2006. Retrieved November 27, 2013.

Principal UX Researcher at AnswerLab

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Jim RossJim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.  Read More

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