a day in the field...

an introduction to field observation

At more than ideas we are firm believers that a day in the field can save you months at a desk. Whether designing services or policy solutions, immersion techniques can be invaluable. When done well they provide rich insight into people’s behaviours, their preferences and habits. They often uncover solutions that pages of spreadsheets can’t crack.

A simple start to the world of immersion is field observation; where you observe, as unobtrusively as possible, your area of interest. Field observations are a low impact, moderate risk technique with so many upsides – if done well. Here are a few helpful hints to help you get off on the right foot.

before you leave

direct your attention

Though observation allows you to look for broad and unfiltered evidence, you can’t possibly capture everything. So it’s important to set a clear research question or problem to guide your attention. This will also help to structure the summaries and reflections done after the observation.

get clear on the ethics

Whilst using our visual and auditory senses to gather direct information shouldn’t be viewed as more ethically difficult than collecting stats on people, it often is. Issues of consent, vulnerability, and power are more obvious when we are engaging with individuals or communities. Think through the issues like anonymity and privacy in advance and document your approach, particularly if using video or audio devices.

do your homework

Research the location in advance so you know peak times, surrounding areas and observation points, and use this to plan your trip. In order to minimise your impact consider how you will blend into the setting including clothing, equipment and location.

select the right tools

Get your data capture method right before you go. Think about what technology you could use to make the most of the time. When record taking allow lots of space (about one page for each 15 minutes of observation). Pre build prompts to take in multiple stimuli (like smells, noises and volumes). Track time as you go so you can translate your notes into a timeline later (so critical to service planning!). Create a space to link your notes to photos you may take. And set up short hand codes and symbols to minimise note taking and maximise your observation time.

when you’re there

capture the atmosphere

Take a few minutes when you arrive to just sit and watch. Then start your observation by describing the setting, thinking about what you can see, hear, feel and smell. Consider how these factors combine to create an atmosphere and capture the key aspects of that. Take photos of the scene or a short video before you start note taking.

control for bias

What you see will always be influenced by your own experience and history. To reduce this influence, capture your observations in as much detail as possible and record verbatim where you can. This will also trigger your memory when you go back over your notes after the fact. Where you have an opinion or theory record this clearly as your own thoughts, either in a separate space or record verbal notes if possible.

avoid fatigue

Keep the length of your observations reasonable so you don’t get too tired, use short breaks and keep hydrated. See if you can find a location where you can recuperate privately to keep your energy up. Finally, if you are getting tired make a note on your records.

be ready for questions

in some cases you may need to introduce yourself on arrival (for example if you have had to negotiate access to a semi-private environment) or you may be asked unexpectedly what it is that you are doing, so prepare an explanation. Keep it as neutral and open as possible whilst still being honest. If you present something as a framed problem it will change the way people behave. Whatever you do don’t commit to something you can’t deliver.

once you’re done

immediately review

Review, tidy and flesh out your notes as soon as possible after the observation while the details are fresh in your mind. Be clear to distinguish between what you’ve observed and your reflections. If your notes are a bit jumbled use highlights, colours, boxes or tags to help organise without losing the original notes.

consider your impact

Record any impact you think your presence has had on the situation. Did people interact with you or show other signs that they were affected by your presence? Was it difficult to blend in? This will assist when interpreting the results and flag the observations that may be less reliable.

draw a conclusion

Summarise what you learnt and create an initial hypotheses against the key research question. Do this on your own first and as soon as possible after the event. This acknowledges you as a data point as well as the observation itself. You can come back and add to your reflections or evolve your hypotheses as you continue to reflect on your observation, just make sure you record the time delay.

share your insights

Get together with others to extract meaning from your experience. This could be with others who undertook parallel observations or with designers and operators who are struggling with the problem you went out to investigate. Don’t wait too long, immediacy is critical to interpreting results and memory recall drops off dramatically after only a few weeks.

have fun in the field and let us know how you go!

all the best from the mti team

download our checklist

other immersion techniques to consider

service sampling

don’t guess what it feels like to use a service, go and sample it and get a visceral feel for the service environment

full immersion

be a participant in an event or experience that will help you understand a particular client type or persona.


be explicit and ask a client to let you shadow them for a period of time.