Jim Ross 13 Jan 2014
In the field of UX design research, we’ve borrowed and adapted many research methods from anthropology to enable us to better understand people and their needs. But we haven’t adopted one signature method of anthropology: participant observation. When we go into the field to observe people performing tasks, we remain outside observers, asking questions and taking notes, but not getting involved in their activities ourselves.
Anthropologists and sociologists often practice participant observation, in which they join a group as a participating member to get a first-hand perspective of the group and their activities. Instead of observing as an outsider, they play two roles at once—objective observer and subjective participant. Participating in the group gives them the ability to experience events in the same way other group members experience them. These are the types of studies that probably come to mind when you think about anthropology or sociology—for example, an anthropologist goes to live with a tribe in the Amazon rainforest or a sociologist moves into a housing project to learn about poverty. These are participant observation studies.
The term participant observation may be confusing to those of us in user experience. We think of participants as the people who we study, and we think of observation as the way we study them. So to us, participant observation sounds like what we do already—observing participants. But in this case, participant means that the researcher is an active participant in an activity while observing it.