May 8, 2024

The Comeback of In-Person Observations in Design Research

A UX researcher in a yellow top holds a clip board as she conducts a series of in-person observations.

Written By: Janine Loo

In this post-pandemic UX world, businesses are again recognizing the value of the face-to-face qualitative research involved in in-person observations. We couldn’t be happier about it — no research method can fully replace the amount of context you get when you can observe users in real-time from within their environment.

While we’re grateful for the virtual research strategies we’ve used over the years, those strategies can be restrictive. Now that we can conduct in-person observations again, we have the opportunity to work without some of those restrictions and reap the benefits, including better trust-building with participants, smoother processes and more robust data and insights.

In today’s blog, we’ll revisit some key virtual strategies used in design research, their challenges, and why in-person observations deserve a comeback.

Here’s a full list of the topics we’ll cover:

  • The shift to virtual observation practices
  • The challenges that came with that shift
  • The benefits of bringing back in-person observations
  • How to get stakeholder buy-in for in-person observations
  • Future trends in observations

Read on to reflect with us on the good and bad aspects of virtual research, and look to the future of “hybrid” research!

The Shift From In-Person to Virtual Design Research Practices

The restrictions around physical interaction during the pandemic caused a shift toward virtual adaptations of UX design, service design and design research work. The only way we could study and understand the behaviours and interactions of our end users was to get creative and build out virtual communication strategies. (Some companies had already shifted to this model, but for most, it was a big transition!)

Looking back, it’s pretty incredible how the industry adapted. We found some amazing workarounds, and a lot of these are still being used. Let’s take a look at some key strategies used for virtual research before we get into their limitations.

This section might be a refresher for you or give you some new ideas, depending on how much remote work you’ve been doing.

Strategies Used for Virtual Research

  1. Technology-based workarounds: With the help of video conferencing tools like Zoom and cloud-based collaboration software like Google Cloud, Figma, and Miro, we were still able to conduct in-depth interviews and facilitate remote workshops that allowed us to see and hear participants and get insight into their behaviours from a distance.
  2. Participant-generated content: By finding ways to include participant-generated content in our design research, we enhanced the depth and authenticity of our data. One great example is the use of digital diaries in place of traditional diary studies.
  3. Real-time communication: We established channels for real-time communication between researchers (and sometimes our participants) to clarify processes and ask questions as needed. This was often facilitated through instant messaging platforms or scheduled video check-ins.
  4. Iterative approaches: We continuously refined our virtual workarounds based on feedback, lessons learned and emerging insights throughout the research process.

These strategies also allowed researchers to collaborate with other practitioners around the world, opening up more opportunities to build balanced and effective UX and service design teams. (Outwitly has always been a remote team, so we had a bit of a leg up in this area from the start!)

Challenges Posed by Virtual Design Research

While they can be very helpful, virtual research approaches can also present their own set of challenges. Their limitations highlight the need to reintegrate in-person observational methods into our research practices. Let’s dive into those limitations below.

    1. Depth of understanding: Interacting with participants over a screen limits our ability to fully capture the intricacies of their real-life interactions. This can also affect the depth and accuracy of our data analysis and findings. Without being present in a user’s environment, we can miss subtle reactions and non-verbal cues that can help define problems, opportunities and processes.
    2. Communication barriers: Non-tech-savvy users can struggle with virtual interactions like video calls. They might be less likely to participate in studies, and if they do, their responses to prompts might be stilted or unnatural. This can lead to the exclusion of insights from less tech-savvy demographics and a bias towards solutions geared to those who are more tech-savvy.
    3. Cultural sensitivity: Remote methods might cause researchers to miss or overlook cultural nuances, which can lead to misinterpretations, biased conclusions and a lack of trust between the participant and the researcher, which can negatively impact an entire project.
    4. Accessibility: For participants with disabilities, remote research can’t always capture the full picture of their challenges or the adaptations they use. For example, researchers might not be able to detect the use of assistive devices or specialized hardware that a participant is using, which could lead to a lack of accommodations or the capture of inaccurate data.
    5. No-shows and technical difficulties: When we come into someone’s place of work or meet them in a physical location, we can be pretty sure they’ll be there (although no-shows can still happen in any case). But when people need to participate virtually, there’s an increased chance that they’ll get “too busy” and/or forget. They might also experience technical difficulties dependent on an internet connection or battery charge on their devices, or they might struggle to find a quiet space to concentrate and hear a researcher’s questions.

(Note: No-shows are tough to deal with, but know what’s even more panic-inducing? Struggling to recruit participants in the first place. Access Outwitly’s best tips and tricks for recruiting research participants at the link below.)

Recruiting Users for Research - Outwitly's free email course sent straight to your inbox.

The Benefits of Returning to In-Person Observations

There’s growing acknowledgement in UX and service design that, despite innovative virtual workarounds, certain nuances and subtleties surrounding a user’s experiences can only be captured through in-person observations. This isn’t just a result of people returning to pre-pandemic practices. It seems like there’s a new appreciation for the value of insights that come from experiencing a user’s environment and any tools, challenges and behavioural differences we can notice when we observe users up close.

Here are some key reasons why we should all consider ramping up our in-person observations:

  1. Unfiltered interactions: Observation is the most straightforward way to witness user interactions firsthand. Stemming back from anthropology, it’s a key primary research tool that helps us better understand social dynamics, rituals, customs and interactions within a particular setting, community or cultural context. 
  2. The immersion factor: Because this type of research takes place in a real-life setting, researchers can immerse themselves in the daily lives of the people they’re studying. In design research, this allows us to gather richer, more authentic, and more accurate insights into a user’s belief systems, everyday practices, and behaviours.
  3. Uncovering latent needs: In-person observation is especially crucial to revealing unspoken or “latent” needs and processes that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to uncover through self-reporting methods like interviews or surveys. Users are often so used to certain tasks or activities that they don’t even notice or remember the issues they encounter. This presents a bit of an obstacle to actually telling you about them!
  4. Empathy-building: Observations help us build empathy for our users and gain a comprehensive understanding of the context of different activities, tasks or roles we’re researching. (We’ve all experienced how much easier it is to build rapport in person than on a video call.)
  5. Accessibility awareness: Assessing accessibility factors often requires in-person observation to fully understand the user experience of participants with disabilities. Also, these participants might need assistance or support during certain research processes like usability testing, which can be much easier to accomplish in person.

Gaining Stakeholder Buy-in for In-Person Observations

If you couldn’t before, now you’ll fully understand and appreciate the value of in-person observations in design research. But how do you convince your stakeholders to invest in this method? Observations often require a ton of logistics, planning and resources. This can seem scary to stakeholders. That’s why it’s up to you to advocate for this practice. 

Here are some points you can use to make a compelling case for investing in in-person observations:

You’ll get more reliable data.

Unlike remote methods, in-person observations allow researchers to witness nuances, body language and environmental factors that may be missed in virtual settings, leading to more accurate data and less risk of bias. Spell out the importance of this to stakeholders: the more accurate the information you have on users, the higher the chance that your designs will improve the product or service in question.

The insights you glean will be more relevant to users.

By directly witnessing user behaviour, researchers can verify and contextualize the data we collect, which means we’re less likely to misinterpret data than with remote or self-reported methods. 

You will include and engage stakeholders in the observation process. 
  • Assure your stakeholders that you’ll co-create your observation plans with them to align your research with the organization’s goals. 
  • Offer to loop them in every step of the way and set up check-ins at intervals so that you can share your exciting insights with them as you go. 
  • Invite stakeholders to participate in or watch in-person observation sessions themselves. This hands-on experience can be a powerful way for them to witness the value of in-person observations firsthand and gain a deeper appreciation for the research process.

(Note: If a stakeholder is actually conducting observations themselves, ensure your research team covers the same roles so that no data is accidentally missed. You should also consider that the presence of stakeholders could influence a participant’s behaviour. Inviting stakeholders into the room might not always be ideal, depending on the environment and individuals involved.)

In-person observations are known to result in great design outcomes.

Tangible success stories can be very persuasive in showcasing the direct impact that observational research has on design decisions. Do some research relevant to your organization’s industry and find some examples or case studies where in-person observations influenced successful design outcomes. Share these with your stakeholders, and highlight the benefits to the business featured in each example. (These might include inspiring innovations, improved user satisfaction, increased product adoption, etc.)

Those great design outcomes directly translate to return on investment (ROI).

Whenever possible, quantify the potential ROI of in-person observations. Take those great design outcomes we mentioned earlier and find ways that they connect to business priorities in the specific organization you’re working with. For instance, could those observation-related design outcomes reduce risk for their product launch, increase their market share, reduce customer churn, get their product to market faster or streamline and optimize their internal business processes? Spend some time researching the organization and giving this some deep thought. It’s the most crucial point in this whole list!

An image of Sara Fortier, with a button to download the slides from her 2023 CanUX presentation: Unlocking the Full Potential of UX

Future Trends in Observational Research

We’ve seen how the popularity of in-person observations in UX and service design has shifted over time, and there’s no doubt that observational research will continue to change in unexpected ways as technology advances. These changes could potentially remove some of the barriers involved in virtual research, although we still have a long way to go.

Before we wrap this blog post, let’s take a quick look at some emerging observational research trends:

  • Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are expected to become increasingly popular in observational research. Researchers are starting to create immersive viewing experiences to simulate real-world environments, which can allow for more controlled settings and flexibility. 
  • Wearable devices and sensors are also being widely adopted in research. They provide opportunities for continuous, unobtrusive data collection (also called “passive data collection”). Design researchers can leverage data from wearables to monitor physiological responses, track movement patterns and gain insights into users’ daily activities in natural settings.
  • A growing emphasis on inclusivity in observational research means that researchers will continue to refine their approaches to account for cultural, social, and accessibility considerations. We are 100% on board with this!

The team at Outwitly is excited to see the evolution of observations in design research. That being said, we love a good old-fashioned round of in-person observations. No technology has emerged that can replace the feeling of being right next to somebody in their environment – the empathy, clarity and spontaneity you get to experience.


We hope this blog will inspire you to advocate for in-person observations with your stakeholders and experience the firsthand benefits of putting this valuable research method into practice!