Why observational research matters

Neil and Hina remind us how crucial it is to understand your product in context, something only really possible with observational research.

Intersecting circles with an eye at the centre.

Since 2020, it feels like everything has changed. A pandemic, a war, an economic downturn and political turmoil. We’re living in a very different world now, and we’re not the same people we were three years ago.

Our habits, commutes, and working lives have changed. Our attitudes, problems and values are different.

Has your digital product changed too? When was the last time you checked in on how people react to it, and interact with it, in real-life?

That’s why this year should be the year of watching people in situ interact with your digital products.

The fall of observational research

2020 was the year that conventional digital product insight ground to a halt. In-person observational research was impossible for a time, then came with health risks. Other methods like analytics, optimisation, remote usability research and diary studies rose in popularity to fill the observational void. The research world adapted; but how successfully?

In 2022 and beyond, with economic uncertainty bubbling away in the background, the picture didn’t improve. Spending on research was scrutinised and budgets cut as part of a universal trend towards belt-tightening by many companies.

Why observational research matters today

Contextual inquiry is all about the context: the rich variety of individuals who allow us into their spaces and their lives. Whether it’s a live surgical theatre, a point of sale device or the cab of a truck, there’s nothing like being in that environment to bring insights to life. Only observing people performing tasks by asking about them, or observing the imprint of their behaviour through digital analytics will never quite offer the same kind of vivid, personal insights that you need.

That doesn’t mean all of those things can’t help to form a useful picture of the status quo. Rather, it’s about creating a rounded toolset that observational research must be a part of. But, in our experience, one of the biggest things that sparks innovation and evolves products is the lightbulb moment that comes from seeing a real-life need, and solving it in a fresh, exciting way.

Taking observational research seriously also shows employees and customers you care. Of course, the sample size is small, but it’s more in-depth and personal than a survey. People want to be seen and heard in their struggles, and the process of seeing and hearing in observational research can help you gain support from employees, customers and stakeholders in new ways. This applies from in-store checkouts to endovascular surgery.

Digging holes in Wales: an observational adventure

We recently helped a leading utility company understand how engineers in the field use digital and physical maps to dig holes. The goal of the project was to remove a managed service desk that sent the maps via email and to use automation to deliver maps through an application. But without understanding the context in which that application was being used - often, a cold, wet and muddy excavation site - we would have missed out a huge list of requirements that were needed to make the solution usable in practice.

Evolving a point of sale with employees

For over a year we worked closely with a leading wholesaler of DIY supplies on developing a new point of sale interface, replacing a system that had been in operation for over a decade. This system had many workarounds, passed down from user to user all in an attempt to get the best out of the system.

Early on we decided that we could only learn about how to improve it through seeing the system in use, even though we were in the depths of the pandemic. Using carefully considered protocols and full cooperation of individual stores, we carried out an extensive examination of use and user habits.

The success of this process ensured that contextual research was continued from testing the early conceptual designs right through to the iterative stages. As well as allowing us to get immediate feedback on both good and bad ideas it made clear to the management team some of the difficulties that regularly hindered staff in their day to day jobs. Moreover, those on the front lines could see that their views were being listened to and that the suggested improvements were being incorporated. This boosted employee morale and went some way to improving customer experience.

Blending it all together

This article may read like a love letter to something that’s already well understood and used. However, the world’s digital focus - and its increasing bias towards it - often means the physical context that digital interactions happen within gets forgotten.

This is not a call to only and forever do observational research. It’s a reminder to blend this valuable, innovation-driving source of input back into the design of digital products.

Integrating the insights you get from real people using your products right now, will set you apart from the products whose owners who aren’t paying attention to how the world’s changed.

Try it for yourself and see how observational research can help you supercharge your optimisation, analytics and product development practices.

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