As part of the course “Design 3: Usage” – we have been asked to blog our thoughts on the methods and theories presented in the course. I would love to – it’s a great push to be more active on the blogging front this fall. And don’t worry, this all starts out with some pretty fun (and sometimes quite scary) stuff which requires little theory and no money to try yourself. One word, three syllables: Ob-ser-vation!
Intuitively, I think of observation as closely watching someone do something, while taking notes and maybe recording video and audio. Or just simply taking a mental note of some interesting event, and acting on it later. Many inventions – many succesful designs and plans have started with just that mental note. But the chance of success, the chance of observing more discrete but equally important events, obviously increases when you make an effort to plan and record your observations.
Still, the real magic of observation is when you come across something you did not expect. To be open to those impressions, you must try to approach the observation objectively, leaving preconceptions or expectations aside. This is hard. And even harder: the art of observing without influencing. In which situations could you be present without affecting the people around you? And if you hide, in which situations could you do that without breaking rules – being unethical? This is why I said observation is scary – you somehow interact with people on a deep level – analyzing and trying to see if there is something they are not themselves conscious of, or perhaps even trying to hide from you. It’s an act of voyeurism – perhaps not everyones’ cup of tea?
A possible solution is indirect observation. This could be user/subject-written diaries, or perhaps automated software generated logs. These two alternatives could reduce the chance of unexpected discoveries, though, especially logs allow only pre-defined variables and value ranges to be recorded. Maybe the user could record a video of themselves? They would still know they were being observed, but at least they would still be in control.
In our specific case, we want to observe students using time management tools. I am starting to find subjects in my class to observe, and have already started doing that, but it is hard to find opportunities where they use time management tools “live” to find out where the lecture in 5 minutes takes place for example. Still, this is possible somehow, and a good excercise in making observation work as a tool (I can definitely imagine these obervations giving valuable insight too).
The other tool I really want to talk about is the interview! I have already done quite a few of those, with some great results and some great improvement opportunities. But that will have to be in the next blog post. Until then – do observe the people and the world around you – there is so much to learn!