• Home
  • /
  • Blog
  • /
  • User Observation in User Research

User research requires two primary activities: observing and interviewing. In this article, User Observation in User Research, our focus is on our user behavior. 

Observing is one of the vital activities as it provides us with the most accurate information on our users, including their tasks and needs. 

What is user observation?

While we know that interviewing as a research method is also essential, the data gathered from people during interviews are often unreliable and accurate. 

This is because most research participants are unsure of what they do—why they do these things, what is needed, what they may do in the future, and how a particular design or feature can be improved. 

Thus, to fully understand what people really do, you do not just interview them. It would be best if you also observed them.

To understand the art of observation in user research, let us ask dive more and define what observation is. What does it entail? 

While we can very well define an observation, there is more to it than just looking and listening. 

UX Newsletter

Let us look at several definitions of observation:

From Oxford English dictionary:

Observation is

• The action or process of closely observing or monitoring something or someone

• The ability to notice things, especially significant details

Observe is

• Notice or perceive something and register it as being significant.

• Watch someone or something carefully and attentively.

From Miriam Webster:

Observation is

• To watch carefully, especially with attention to details or behavior, to arrive at a judgment.

What we can learn from the above definitions is that observation involves the following words- “action or process,” “closely,” “carefully and attentively,” “notice or perceive something,” “significant details,” and “purpose of arriving at a judgment.”

These words can tell us that observation is not just passively looking and listening. User observation involves watching and having full attention and careful, purposeful conscious efforts. 

This means that as an observer, we need to direct our attention to things actively, notice elements, process that information, and be able to determine the importance of our learnings and insights from answering specific questions. 

Observing users in their environment

We won’t know our users and how they live unless we observe them in their own environment and their own contexts. 

For example, if you have a product that manages and organizes work and assignments, you will need to understand how workers use it and when they will likely use it. 

Only by observing your users interact with your product will you genuinely know what you need to improve in your product. 

Careful observation allows certain variables to be known, and then you can make the necessary changes.    

When it comes to the gold-standard type of observation, it is always recommended that UX researchers conduct the in-person or in-context observation. However, this kind of observation is not always feasible due to several reasons such as budgeting, time, and logistics.

However, UX researchers can still learn a lot of insights by simply observing their test participants’ click-throughs and log user data in a remote moderated session.

This is true if you understand the existing biases in user research and a piece of knowledge on how you can reduce these biases.   

Biases in UX research

Biases in UX research

Another thing we should have a complete understanding of is the role of biases in user research. 

In light of this, all people are naturally biased. Just a quick scroll to your social media account, you can see many of these biases in your social media feed. 

In the context of user testing, biases are very subtle than those you see every day, like political preferences or religious beliefs. 

In fact, these biases have a significant impact on user testing, and people involved with it unlikely do not perceive these biases at all. 

Most of the time, the participants are very eager to please, seem smart, and can quickly forget when things have gone wrong if they achieve a goal. 

If user researchers and testers are not very careful, these can give to misleading biases. 

Thus, these three biases are very important as they often cause users to change behaviors in a user testing environment unwittingly:

Social desirability bias

It occurs when users do not want to be judged for not understanding something, such as how to use a product, resulting in unintentionally modifying their behaviors to look more proficient. 

The best way to minimize this kind of bias is to put your users at ease and reassure them they are not the ones being tested, but instead, you are testing your interface. 

Always remind them that if something is not working, the problem is your interface, not theirs. 

Try to always stay neutral throughout the testing process and make sure that you ask open-ended questions that do not imply any right or wrong answers. 

The Hawthorne Effect

While observational research is one of the best ways to get the right insights from your participants, it can also cause the participants to change their behavior very subtly. 

Since the effect of this bias goes down over time, the best way to minimize this effect is to plan for a longer observation time, hoping that your participants will forget that you are observing them. 

You may try to improve the observational research Hawthorne effect by directly addressing the test participants and telling them they can pretend you are not there as they go through the test. 

You may also ask them how they handle matters differently if they are not being observed. You may be surprised at how much insight you can get from your test users by doing these things. 

Hindsight bias

The hindsight bias refers to people attempting to subconsciously filter memories of past events through the lens of present knowledge. 

In this context, self-reporting can become unreliable than observational user research because of this hindsight bias or when users report that the interface was more accessible and more manageable than it was.

By observing test participants during the testing phase, will this gap came to light. So whenever people say it is not always what they mean, we should observe and watch them in action to collect a broader range of all your data points and help fix the experiencer that is not reported as issues by the users.   

We can only try to minimize these biases to occur in our testing phase because it is impossible to completely eliminate all biases that may come to play anytime in the testing environment. 

Still, being aware of these common biases and learning how to deal with them can go a long way toward reducing the problem.

The importance of observational UX research methods

It should now become more apparent that as UX researchers, we do not want to base our decisions on self-reporting or verbatim alone. The UX biases are not the only reason why we should prioritize UX observational studies as part of our methodology.

We also want our products to fit into the lives of our users since people won’t change their behavior in using your product. Additionally, there is much more going on when it comes to day-to-day other than the strict interaction with your product interface. 

We need to fully understand how our product fits into the users’ lives by carefully observing how they interact with the product. 

Types of user observation

Types of user observation

We know that an individual’s behavior is a vital element when it comes to observing users. Here are several types of user observation, including examples and what you look for during the observation stage:

Participant observation

Participant observation is a traditional ethnographic research method where the UX researcher joins the group and participates in the group activities. 

This kind of observation is helpful in situations where the researcher needs to study the group and observe how they interact with the product. 

A group research focus is observing the participant; thus, it is not an ideal research method where the activities of the test participants are alone or infrequently (for example, website purchases on eCommerce sites). 

Usability testing

 Usability testing is handy when it comes o evaluating the product by testing it with a representative user. 

In this kind of user observation, the testers will perform a specific task or set of functions while the observer listens and takes notes. 

The UX researcher will collect both qualitative and quantitative data to determine the satisfaction level of the users when it comes to interacting with the product.    

The UX researcher can also ask about what the tester is thinking or doing. However, the focus is to observe the tester’s actions.

Contextual inquiry

Contextual inquiry is the UX research that is based on the context of the user. This is where researchers observe participants natural behavior or environment while they are demonstrating and explaining their daily tasks. 

The primary focus of the observation is to see the way users are performing their tasks. The analysis is more information when users are evaluated in their own natural environment as the researcher can know about the users’ workflow, tools they use, and the experiences happening in the physical world. 

Naturalistic observation

In a naturalistic user observation, the UX researcher observes the participant without interacting with them.

The goal of naturalistic observation is to observe people's natural activities and natural behavior without any interruptions. This will allow users to study and get familiarized with things that cannot be manipulated. 

For example, observing students and their behaviors inside the classroom setting. You can also observe the dynamics involved between the teacher and the students.


In shadowing, the UX researcher only observes while the participants complete their tasks in the natural environment. This kind of user observation is different from contextual observation in the way that the users are interviewed first or are involved in a group discussion. 

During shadowing, the researcher makes a list of questions for the participants to answer at the end of the user test session. The users are provided with a commentator who explains what is being observed. 

Covert observation

Covert observation is like naturalistic observation. The only difference in this type of user observation is the observer watches the participants without informing them. 

Unlike naturalistic observation, this type of observation is best performed with no expectation of privacy, such as in public places (observe people shopping in the malls).

Controlled observation

Controlled observation is a structured observation that takes place inside a lab. In this type of observation, the UX researcher explains the purpose of the research to the participants. 

The researcher controls many of the variables like location, time, surroundings, etc. 

The observations are recorded quantitively and qualitatively. 

Planning a user observation

Planning a user observation

We are aware that user observation is not just about passively looking and listening. You will need to plan things to get good data carefully. Thus, you need to sort the following information:

The goal of the research

One of the first things you need to know is to decide what you want to learn from this research. Start by framing questions that you want to answer in the end. Start with a specific concept, be flexible, and revise when needed. 

The research methods

Decide the type of UX research methods that you will use based on the problem and situation, like the type of user interviews, contextual inquiries, etc.

List down the tasks

Design the tasks that you want your participants to conduct during the user observation. The focus of your tasks should be on the problem and the product you will be studying. Be sure to also write down the tasks as short and straightforward instructions. 

Plan the who, what, when, and where

Once you have completed the above steps, the next thing to decide is to find your observing participants participants and determine when they will perform the tasks. 

Decide on the recording tool.

Depending on the type of user research method, you can also use a recording tool to analyze qualitative data or quantitative data later or once the session is over. 

The takeaway

User observation research is easy as all you need to do is to sit, watch, and record what you see and hear during the test session. 

However, this is easy in theory. It takes a lot of practice as well as a keen interest to get the right insights from your observations. 

User observations are significant when it comes to learning more about how users interact with your product and identifying any problems that may exist during this encounter. 

It is worth noting that such user observations may require a combination of other research methods such as structured interviews after an observation happened. This will provide researchers with further insights into what and why something is happening. 

UX Newsletter

Mary Ann Dalangin

About the author

A content marketing strategist and a UX writer with years of experience in the digital marketing industry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Stop guessing, start knowing. Today.