Design researchers are often tasked with observing how people interact with design outcomes. Whether we are trying to find how effectively something that’s designed functioning or we’re trying to learn how people create and manipulate their own designs, observing use scenarios comes up often in design research. This video from IIT offers some great insights into what people are really doing.

What People Are Really Doing from IIT Institute of Design on Vimeo.

Observing and interacting with people who are using design often means you have to forget you know a lot about design and “see through the eyes of a child.” Ask questions even if you think you know the answer. Many times, it’s all a matter of perspective.

Emic Observations

Depending on your research topic, it may make sense to be on the “inside” as an observer. This is called an emic observation. This type of observing means that participants use designs while you may ask questions like “why did you hold the spoon that way when you stirred the pot?” or “I noticed you double-clicked on the button, could you tell me why?” In these cases, participants are aware of your presence and your job is to encourage them to talk about their experiences while they are using products. It’s a stream-of-consciousness approach, but effective for getting people to reveal the things they’re thinking when they use products or experience things (even if it feels a bit forced).

Etic Observations

A lot of times it makes sense for observations to be done when participants or others being observed are not aware of the researcher’s presence. These observations are etic observations. In these cases, researchers have to discern what is happening when people use designs and make inferences why they do what they do. These types of observations will not provide clear-cut data on why someone pauses when they enter a building or squint at a poster design in a low-lighting situation, but at the same time, these people will be more likely to behave “naturally” because they will be unaware they are being observed.

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Dennis Cheatham

Associate Professor, Communication Design

Miami University

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