Design Methods #6 – Fly-on-the-wall Observation

Researchers can unobtrusively collect information using fly-on-the-wall observation, where there is no direct participation or interference with the people or behaviours that are being observed. This is a different approach to other types of observation (eg participant observation), intentionally avoiding direct involvement and therefore minimising the biases and influences that such involvement brings. However, the inability to connect with those observed or to probe behaviours and motivations can limit this approach.This makes such observation relatively less structured and more flexible than other approaches, although often guided by frameworks such as AEIOU which will be described in another article).

Designers and researchers can fall into one of two categories when conducting such observation according to John Seizel: secret outsiders or recognised outsiders. Secret outsiders are typically viewing out of sight of the view of participants and are ‘observing at a distance’. In this case, any influences are minimised but it can be difficult to pick up on nuances of interactions between participants and environment as well as social interactions. Recognised outsiders are made known to participants as is their role as an observer. However, they still make sure that they appear natural and unobtrusive in the environment.

Despite such efforts, it is well known that people change their behaviours when being observed . The ‘Hawthorne effect’ was famously discovered in a study of worker productivity in response to changes in lighting conditions. In the original study, productivity of workers increased whatever lighting or other changes were made in the environment, suggesting that change in itself had led to the increase, or the increase reflected the interest shown in the workers.

Observation methods should always reflect the situation and the research objectives. Fly-on-the-wall observation is appropriate for building understanding of public spaces and activities or work activities (where observation is likely to have minimal disruptive or influence effects). If there is a likelihood that people will alter their behaviour and verbal responses when an observer is present, then fly-on-the-wall may be the right observation approach.

Design ethnography, observation, participant observation and shadowing will be the subject of future articles in this series.


Universal Methods of Design by Bella Martin & Bruce Hanington (2012)

Inquiry by Design: Environmental, Behaviour.Neuroscience in Architecture, Interiors, Landscape and Planning by John Zeisel

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