What is it?

Observation is an ethnographic technique, involving using all of your senses to understand people in natural settings or naturally occurring situations.

Why use it?

Observing attendees in your space is a good first step to understanding how people are interacting with your organisation.

It can help you identify research questions for further exploration.

Before you start

Is this tool right for you? To find out more about selecting the best tool, check out the project planner.

Structured observation gives you insight into what people are doing, and how they are using your spaces, but not why they are using your spaces that way.

You may need to use complementary methods to test your assumptions or explore your ideas further (see more information below).

What you'll need

Time1 day to plan and prepare, 2 weeks to conduct your observations, 3 hours to reflect
BudgetNo cost
EquipmentComputer, tablet

Top Tip 

Taking photos allows you to capture data for later discussion with colleagues.

It can also help to have a copy of the floorplan, so you can make notes about different parts of your space.

Step by step

1. Decide what to observe

First, think about what you’re most interested in when it comes to your attendees’ experience.

Physical space:

  • How people enter, move through and exit your spaces?
  • Which spaces are being used most or least?

People in your spaces:

  • What kinds of people visit your spaces?
  • Do different types of people use your spaces differently? i.e. a family versus an individual versus couples or groups of people.

Key messages and design:

  • Are your key messages getting across?
  • Is your space being used as you intended?
  • Are certain types of people not able to interact with certain spaces or works?
  • Is your signage/information useful?

2. Plan practicalities

When planning the practicalities of your observation, consider these points:

  • Where you’ll position yourself and how you’ll move around. Will you follow specific people, or observe people entering into a particular space?
  • What time of day and days of the week will you conduct your observation?
  • How many people will be conducting the observation? And how will you ensure consistency in your recording?
  • How will you take notes and record information?

3. Consider your consent and privacy obligations

Taking photos is a great way to record parts of your observation for later discussion with colleagues, but you need to get consent, either by asking directly or displaying a sign at the point of entry.

Read the get consent guide and privacy guide to understand your obligations, including what information needs to be displayed or shared with people on the day.

4. Conduct your observations

Remember to use your eyes, ears, and other senses to gather clues about people’s behaviour.

Write down everything you see and hear, even if it doesn’t seem important. Small details may later help you with your interpretation.

Be open with your attendees or anyone who approaches you to ask what you’re doing. Talking to your attendees is a good opportunity to gain some deeper understanding behind what’s going on in your space. Check out the talk to your visitors guide for tips on making feedback count!

5. Reflect on your observations

When you’re ready to reflect, take some time to review your observation notes. Ask yourself three questions:

  • What are the top 3 things to come out of my observations?
  • What is surprising?
  • What points do I need to relay to other people I work with?

Show your photos and notes to your team or a trusted colleague – this could be box office staff, ushers or gallery attendants. This is important, as you may get different interpretations.

Check out the action your results template for ideas on how to keep track of any actions you want to take following your observations.

Consider documenting your findings in a short report with the help of the write a research report tool.

6. Dive deeper into the ‘why’

After reflecting on your observations you’ll gain some insight into how people are using or not using your spaces. But what you still won’t know is why. Consider how you can use your observational insights to conduct informal conversations with your attendees, or to conduct an on-site survey, a formal focus group, or an online survey.

For tips on how to have casual conversations with your attendees, have a read of the talk to your visitors guide.

To understand and measure the ‘why’ on the spot, check out the conduct on-site surveys tool. Consider combining your structured observation approach with on-site intercepts to make the most of your resources.

If you’d like to speak to a group of people in a more formal way, take a look at the run a focus group tool.

To gather quantitative evidence (the numbers and statistics), check out the send short survey tool.