Observations are an important research method for managers, businesses, and researchers alike to determine how people interact and behave in different environments. Observations can help researchers better determine what people do given different scenarios and environmental factors.

Click on the diagram below to learn the five steps for conducting effective observations for research.

How to Conduct Observations for Research

  1. Identify Objective
    Determine what you want to observe and why. Are looking to see how students respond to a new environment? How customers interact with employees? How bosses interact with subordinates? When conducting observations, you are trying to learn habits, patterns, behaviors, reactions, and general information about people in a particular environment to better understand what they do and, hopefully eventually, why they do it (though observations alone often won’t tell you the “why”).
  2. Establish Recording Method
    To make observations most effective, it’s important that you minimize or eliminate any disruptive or unfamiliar devices into the environment you wish to observe. For example, it is often least effective to videorecord observations in situations where the people being observed know they are being filmed (but it’s usually unethical to film without telling them. Note-taking is the most common method, though in some public spaces you can take photographs, audio recordings, and other methods.
  3. Develop Questions and Techniques
    Determine whether you are conducting an informal or a formal observation (see explanations to the far right.) Knowing your objective, determine if there are specific questions you have or if you are going in completely open-minded. What you hope to learn will help you know what specifically to look for. Be prepared when entering an observation space by having a sound understanding of the type of information you are trying learn.

  4. Observe and Take Notes
    Visit the space you are hoping to get information from. Be as unobtrusive as possible, taking notes, photographs, audio, and film, only where it is allowed, you have permission, and it makes sense for the research without disrupting the environment. If you are doing formal observations, will you need to code certain behaviors, actions, words, visuals, and other observed data.

  5. Analyze Behaviors and Inferences
    Separate the difference between what you observed (which are factual behaviors) and why what you observed happened. Typically, to make some sense of your observed data, you will need to interview people in the environment you are observing, either during the observation itself, or afterwards. Make connections between interactions, responses, behaviors, and other phenomena.

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