3 Types of Participant Observation to Get You Out of the Backroom and Onto the Frontlines
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3 Types of Participant Observation to Get You Out of the Backroom and Onto the Frontlines

February 8, 2019

Mark Micheli

Participant observation research reveals reliable behavioral insights for your business, shedding light on a lot of information in relatively little time. Done right, it can act as the ultimate empathy generator for the customers you serve. In this post, we'll explore three approaches to shatter the glass between you and your subjects.

Participant Observation_MTA Conductor

We need to talk about mirrors. Specifically, two-way mirrors. 

Those cold, transparent pieces of glass that separate the observer from the observed in focus groups (and criminal interrogations). Now, I’ve moderated enough focus groups and UX tests to know two-way mirrors are not without merit – they make research accessible to stakeholders, enable deep participant reflection, and provide a controlled environment for customer immersion exercises (and, of course, a dark place to quietly gorge on Peanut M&Ms…).

However, the two-way mirror also acts as a very literal barrier between you, your customers, and their real-world experience. If you want to truly understand someone else’s experience, you need to meet them where they are – in their day-to-day context.

That’s why participant observation is vital when tackling innovation, UX and market insights challenges. As you think about a qualitative research design for your next study, here’s how to decide what type of participant observation is right for your team.

The Benefits of Participant Observation in Qualitative Research

In order to address the complex innovation challenges facing businesses today, you need to be, as a rule, skeptical. Skeptical of what people say and the reliability of self-reported claims. The goal of participant observation, and other forms of ethnography, is to soak up behavioral data by observing what people do, not what they say.

In the various forms of participant observation, a researcher observes behavior in a subject group and participates in their activities in order to better empathize with their motives and immerse in the small, but influential, details of their experience. The researcher might browse store shelves alongside shoppers (and learn that store signage is deeply confusing) or visit a subject’s home to observe how consumers use technology in their daily lives (and learn customers have invented their own workarounds to cope with what you thought was your “killer” feature). Observing customers in real-life contexts enable us to understand their viewpoints and, sometimes, literally walk a mile in their shoes.

At Kelton, we think about participant observation research in three broad categories:

  1. The Embed Observer

Many of us at Kelton are former (recovering?) journalists, and this approach isn’t all that different than what we did pounding the pavement to chase down an investigative story. Just as journalists “embed” with subjects, an embed observer becomes a member of the user group to really understand what they experience. The embed observer might go undercover as a Secret Shopper, buying products and interacting with employees in order to provide feedback to a retailer who wants to learn more about customer service at the point of sale. Or an embed observer might work in a call center for a few days to better understand the workflows and challenges facing a typical customer service employee.

When to embed: Use the Intercept method to interview customers or employees about their experiences as they’re happening. This helps you access genuine experiences, like those that define purchase processes, customer journeys, how brands compare to the competition or the usability aspects of a service or product design.


  1. The Observer as Apprentice

The best way to learn is often by training – that’s why participant job shadows are one of the most efficient forms of observational research. In Contextual Inquiry, the researcher takes on the role of apprentice, learning from the user how to do a job, complete a task or use technology. This method of participant observation is ideal for learning if the design of a UX/UI successfully allows users to do what the design team intended, and can also include Task Analysis, Think-alouds, and Empathy Mapping. The latter is often a preliminary step in design thinking and enables researchers to think about the user from the vantage point of what the user says, does, thinks and feels.

When to be an apprentice: Apprentice-style approaches are ideal to understand workflows and observe how a user does (or does not) accomplish a task (or “Job To Be Done”) with a product or service. If you’re designing organizational dynamics or evaluating the effectiveness of new technology, this technique is for you.


  1. The Fly on the Wall

Sometimes it’s best to blend into the background, stay out of the way and quietly observe an experience without being noticed by participants or employees. This can be useful in observing the checkout experience in retail, the types of interactions facilitated by the design of a public space or how employees collaborate in a work environment.

“Fly on the wall” participant observation in qualitative research incorporates methods such as the AEIOU observation framework, which examines interactions across five key elements (activity, environment, interaction, object, and user). Other methods, such as Passive Tracking and Experience Sampling (which require participants to report on their feelings, behaviors or thoughts in the moment), can help a business decipher how well a system or process works and, ultimately, aid in optimizing existing service-systems.

When to be a fly: Use the “fly on the wall” approach when you want to better understand how an existing system or process works or when you want to optimize an existing service system.

Get Out of the Back Room  

Participant observation research reveals reliable behavioral insights for your business, shedding light on a lot of information in relatively little time. Done right, it can act as the ultimate empathy generator for the customers you serve.

By observing how your customers interact with products and services and understanding the complete context in which they do it, you’ll be in a better position to meet needs they didn’t know they had. While focus groups certainly have their time and place, empathy, understanding, and genuine social dynamics are all but impossible to access when you’re literally in the dark, separated by a wall of glass.

Mark Micheli

Vice President, Experience Innovation & Product Strategy

With a career spanning digital journalism, content marketing, product management, and UX design, Mark uses multiple perspectives to elevate the voice of users and unite cross-functional teams around...

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