The Power of Observation

by Thomas Kadavy

The Power of Observation

Many innovative new products have their genesis in simple observation. Observation reveals unmet user needs, problems and opportunities. These insights are the inspiration for great products that create new markets and a strategic competitive advantage, ultimately driving revenue growth. Understanding the power of observation is essential for building your company’s product development innovation engine.

The Observational Study

The observational study is intended to provide actionable information for defining user needs, creating problem statements and understanding use scenarios. These studies are generally not complex and usually consist of observers embedding themselves with people as they go about their daily work or specific tasks. Studies should be well-planned and have written goals and clear expectations for type and format of output. Depending on study design observations can be as short as hours or as long as days. The subject may be observed only once or multiple times over many days. The number of subjects chosen to study varies depending on budget, how representative of the target demographic the subjects are and the need to present data from enough individuals so the study is credible to decision makers.

Selection Criteria and Subjects

Selection criteria for the study subjects are important and should be carefully considered. Criteria are extremely varied and may include geographic location, skill levels, experience with the product and professional profile. Important customers are generally included along with new accounts with high potential. Achieving sample diversity is usually the goal, although a tightly-grouped or vertical sample may be appropriate depending on the goals of the study. The important point is to make sure you are thoughtful about your criteria and selections as they will drive the validity of your data and the cost of your study.


The abilities and characteristics of the observers (usually better in pairs) are critical to the success of the study. The observers are explorers of the subject’s world and they should view themselves as such. The exploration metaphor is an excellent way to think about an observational study and provides a framework for choosing and preparing the observers. A few of the most important observer characteristics are listed below:

  • Active listener. Sensitive and open to problems (both spoken and unspoken), user needs, potential improvements, inadequacies, inefficiencies, frustrations and failures.
  • Well-Prepared to explore the users’ experiences and understands study goals.
  • Inquisitive. Willing to question and probe in a non-threatening manner.
  • Unobtrusive. Ability to blend in.
  • Can Create Trust. Does not lead the subject.
  • Is Perceptive and Intellectually Curious

Study Output

Raw observational data should be recorded in a notebook by each observer. Audio or video recording is great if privacy concerns allow and it doesn’t change subject behavior. Pairs of observers work best as one can cover the other when there is interaction with the study subject. In many cases, having two observational views creates interesting post-study connections and leads to more valuable insights than a single point of observer data.

Most studies include a post-observation interview. The format of this interview should be pre-defined and tailored to the goals of the study. What are the specific questions to which you want to ensure all participants respond? What situations, environments and interfaces do you want to probe? Do you have specific beliefs you are trying to validate during the interview? If so, make sure your interview data gathering form includes them.

The interview data along with the raw observations notebooks will fuel your post-study analysis. The goal of this analysis is to articulate true user needs and create associated problem statements. These problem statements represent real opportunities for development of new products that will lead to growth for your business.

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Thomas KadavyTom Kadavy provides product strategy leadership as the Director of Medical Technology at Stratos Product Development. Stratos helps clients rapidly and cost-effectively create relevant and compelling technology products, ready for market introduction.

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