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Observational Research Methods

‘We have degraded the visible arts into the obvious arts
and the one thing not worth looking at is the obvious’

Oscar Wilde
‘ALICE was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the
bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into
the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations
in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures
or conversations?'

So she was considering, in her own mind (as well as she could, for the
hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of
making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and
picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran
close by her.

Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had
never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch
to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field
after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole
under the hedge.

In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering
how in the world she was to get out again’
Defining Design Research

‘No one seems to be sure what design research means.

Should design research follow the model of traditional
academic disciplines, or should it seek a new model based
on the intimate connection among theory, practice, and
production that is the hallmark of design?’

Buchanan Richard: Book review: ‘Elements of graphic design’.

In Design Issues, V 12,n 1 Spring 1996
All research begins with observation, to watch, to record and
then to describe, analyse and interpret what we have
Advantages to observational research
It is a direct approach, you do not ask people questions
you observe their actions

You SHOULD use all your senses to record

It is one of the most appropriate techniques for getting
at ‘real life’ in the real world.
Disadvantages to observational research

The major concern how the observer can effect the observed

A real practical problem with this technique is that

it is very time consuming
Observational research can take a variety of forms
and can be used for several purposes in a study.

It is commonly used in an exploratory phase, typically in

an unstructured form.

Observation can also be used as a supportive or

supplementary method to collect data that may
complement or set in perspective data obtained by other
However observational research is usually NOT the primary
method and is used in conjunction with other methods
The typical observation, whether in a laboratory or in the
field, in-corporates a form of controlled observation.

Fundamentally different
approaches to the use of
observational methods in
enquiry have been

The two polar extreme

types are-

Participant Observation

Structured Observation
Participant Observation

-an essentially qualitative style, originally rooted in the

work of anthropologists.

-widely used method in flexible designs, particularly those

that follow an ethnographic approach.

Ethnographic- the scientific description of peoples and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences.
Things to consider when documenting and recording

1) Space- layout of the physical setting; rooms and outdoor

2) Actors- the names and relevant details of the people involved

3) Activities- the various activities of the actors

4) Objects-physical elements: furniture etc.

5) Acts- specific individual actions

6) Events-particular occasions, e.g. meetings

7) Time-the sequence of events

8) Goals-what actors are attempting to accomplish

9) Feelings-emotions in particular contexts

Structured observation
-is almost always linked to fixed designs, of both
experimental and non-experimental types.

For example certain interviews are often used as methods of

Structured Observation

Structured observation tends to be more detached

and it tends to use systems and coding schemes to
structure the observation
Schemes tend to be focused on specific areas of
interest in the research these can include-

Non-verbal behaviors- body movement especially linked

or associated with language.

Spatial behaviors- the extent to which individual move

towards or away from others.

Extra-linguistic behaviors- such as speaking pace,

loudness and tendency to interrupt or be interrupted.

Linguistic behaviors-covers the actual content of talking

and its structural characteristics.
Approaches to Recording Observation

Narrative approaches-

this approach is most common and typified by reports

arising from participant observation and often take the
form written diaries and accounts but can also include
images and recordings
Approaches to Research: example
I tend to use a range of devices for the storing, recording and collating of
varied imagery and information. These can take the form of the following:

• Sketchbooks – containing a range of approaches to recording and responding to

environment, place and culture through the use of collage, frottage, drawing etc.
These vary in size but are mainly A5 to allow ease of access.
• Notebooks – a range of written, observed and collected information (mainly text
based) which can also contain web-site addresses, phone numbers, library
references etc. These tend to be pocket size.
• Research Files – containing articles, photocopies, images and clippings from
books, magazines, periodicals and newspapers/ supplements.
• Flip Files – containing prints of 35mm photographs and slides taken from a variety
of locations, locally and world-wide. These can detail a range of imagery from text
to texture, to structure and architecture, to signage and symbols.
• Flip Files – containing postcards of artists work, students work and of various
images which I have deemed to be of interest.

Anon, 2004
Getting started- a reflective journal
• A day per page diary
• 2 columns
• One side- on the day
• Descriptive and reactive
• Primary reflection
• The other- after a week (secondary reflection)
• Add to it after month/s (Tertiary reflection)
• Why?
• Spot trends/ patterns
• Give quotes/ info for your report.
Observation of self; example
The exhibitionist me:
• As a teenager, puberty played horrible tricks on me, and so I took comfort in
hiding behind my drawings. My imagination had become my alternative
method of making friends and influencing people.
The experimental me:
• As a child, I vowed never to grow old. At least in the sense that I would keep in
touch with my child side that allows me to be imaginative without inhibition. It
is this sense of playfulness I try to keep within my practice, so the viewer/end
user may benefit from, and share the hours of enjoyment I put in to my work.
The thinking me:
• As a degree student, I am ever finding that a good idea has no substitute.
Apart from bribery. A good idea, and the use of wit, makes a piece of work
more memorable, and gains more attention. I always try to avoid the obvious in
the hope that this will set me apart from the rest and give me a better chance
of obtaining a job and some recognition.
The story teller me:
• There is a difference between a simple photograph of a child, and a
photograph of a child tied to train tracks with a train approaching. I like to
make the viewer think ‘well, what happens next?’
Jam Buyukoglu; Research Report 2005
Analysis of User Observation;
‘Responses were when I looked back, largely
generated by peers. These people have
become familiar with the way I practice.

This might somehow affect the feedback, being

less likely to bring forward their own
associations and a tendency to voice what the
artist would want to hear.’
Emma Neville ‘Solitary Space’ Research Report, 2004
Analysis of Self Reflection;
‘One comment stays with me…

‘When you can’t get the evidence from other people,

it’s time to ask yourselves what you think success is,
and where the work needs to go.’’
Sarah Moody, ‘Solitary Space’ Research Report, 2004
Homework; Observational
Research of a Journey
• Record using any balance of image, text,
sound, media etc
• Chronological, sequential personal
• Important journey within London
• Presentation next week ‘Show; no tell’
• No maximum size, length, time
• Detailed, rich, insight into your view
Narrative Approaches
• Where did you start the journey?
• Where did you end the journey?
• How long was the journey?
• What was the purpose of the journey?
• What was your mode of transport?
• What did you observe & record at each point?
Films to inspire

• ‘Little Miss Sunshine’; example of Observational Research into a Journey

• ‘Alice in Wonderland’; example of Observational Research into a Journey
• ‘Perfume; Story of a Murderer’; example of Sensory Observational Research
• ‘American Beauty’; example of Observational Research of Object
• ‘Rear Window’; example of Observational Research
• ‘Don’t Look Back’; example of Observational Research
• ‘Peeping Tom’; example of Participant Observation, Structured Observation
• ‘Being John Malkovich’; example of Peer Observation
• ‘Memento’; example of Narrative Chronology/ Perceptual Accuracy
• ‘Minority Report’; example of Perceptual Accuracy
• ‘Royal Tenenbaums’; example of Peer Observation
See weblearn for
designer/ student examples
(to go up shortly!)

• ‘bridge’- Michael Cross; example of Research Process

• ‘Le Voyage Dans La Moon’; example of Observational Research Journey
• ‘the birds’- Paul Spurr; example of Observational Research Journey
• ‘brick lane’- Bruna Martins;example of Observational Research Journey
• ‘but- is it art?’- Joyce Fenton Douglas; example of Observational Research Journey
• ‘Cars’- Anon; example of Observational Research Journey
• ‘Through the Enchanted Forest’- Neil Simmons; example of Observational Research Journey
• ‘The Journey’- Jess Magee; example of Observational Research Journey
• ‘Way Things Go’- Fischli & Weiss; example of Structured Observation
• ‘Making It Yours’- Steve Follen; example of Self Reflective Observation on process
• ‘White’ Gareth Mason; example of Self Reflective Observation on process
• ‘Jewellery is Life’- Mah Rana; example of Self Reflective Observation on process
• ‘watching my practice’- Charles Pemberton; example of Self Observation on process
• ‘my research process’- Matt Cook; example of Self Reflective Observation
• ‘my inspiration’- Ashley Spindler; example of Self Reflection
• ‘audience feedback’ –Ashley Spindler; example of User Observation