3.1 – User Research: Observation

Students will carry out research to gain an understanding of the human and the tasks they need to perform.


User observation involves watching and listening carefully to users as they interact with an interface or work with a product. There are many user testing techniques available, but user observation is one approach that can be used if there is a real desire to include the user in the design process. Although it is possible to collect more detailed data using other methods, observing users is a quick way to obtain an objective view of a product.

Observation Preparation

Due to restrictions regarding time and available ‘users’, we decided early to combine our Observation and Interview sessions together. The interviews and their results will be examined in the following blog post.

We agreed to conduct controlled observations, which require us to explain the purpose of the observation to the user and let them know they are being observed. As we wanted to keep each user session to a maximum of 15 minutes, we knew we had to keep the observation section short and to the point. We created two tasks that covered most of the core Irish Wrecks functionality:

  1. Please enter the site and find a list of all wrecks sorted by name.
  2. Now please try and find a wreck that is closest to where you live, using a map on the website.

We would then aim to record their observation quantitatively (e.g. yes/no or a rating scale) against each step. We would also add any additional observations freehand against each step – enabling the collection of additional qualitative data.

Conducting the Observations

Over two days, Graham and I conducted observation/interview sessions with 7 individuals – all colleagues who are based in different departments in our workplace. I also conducted one more session with a friend outside the workplace. The next blog post will go into greater detail about how we welcomed and prepped each interviewee.

The user observation began immediately after these introductions. Each individual was seated in front of a laptop with the current Irish Wrecks website on display. They were then asked to complete the tasks listed above.

For his part, David conducted three sessions and did screen-recordings of each observation section, which we studied for further observational work afterwards.

The recorded videos can be viewed here.

Observation Results

Our combined notes from all sessions are as follows:

 Initial ThoughtsEnter SiteList Wrecks by NameFind Closest to you via Map
MelanieColour scheme very confusing. Terrible UX principles.No problem on first page. Bit hesitant on second page.Took a little bit of time, but was laughing while doing it because it was so badStarted looking through list table. Attempted some clicks on the table. Then clicked on map after hint. After another hint found interactive buttons on map.
Joanne O'Fn/aNo problem on first page. Bit hesitant on second page.No problem.No problem but found interactive buttons hard to see.
EddieVery distracting information. Very small icons hard to read. Clicked wrong icon two times. Had to be guided to direct link.No problem. Expressed desire for map.Had to be directed to use map. Had to be told about interactive sections.
Fionan/aFirst page slow. Second page quick. Click text instead of buttonQuick to find map. Details a lot of trouble. Needed to be prompted.
Alexn/aFirst screen ok. Second screen difficulty.No problem.No problem.
Samanthan/aNo problem.No problem.Needed to be hinted to use interactive map.
RonanNot easy to navigate. Home page not clear what site is about. Second page very confusing.First page quick. Second page a bit slower, actually used a different button than we expected. Got there. Pressed menu first and expected text to be clickable.Went to map straight away. Didn't notice numbers on map, used dropdowns
Mossyn/aFirst screen OK. Second screen difficulty, clicked on 'Compiled by' textNo problemHad to edit URL to return to homepage. Used map to locate wrecks in Cork but then couldn't use filter system to find info on individual wreck.
Diarmuidn/aClicked on wrong icon a few times. Struggled with second page, clicked on wrong icon and hesitated to click on arrow to enter the site.Found this relatively easily.Found this relatively easily.
Aoifen/aFirst screen ok. Hesitant on second screen.No problem.Found map and clicked on county easily. Couldn't use filtering system to find info on specific wreck and gave up.
Joanne CVery unimpressed with opening page, commented on it looking very 90s and hard to navigate.First page ok. Second screen difficulty, had to be prompted.No problem.Found map, but clicked on Cork 'dot' instead of grid itself. Found grid after a short delay. For second map, moved the mouse pointer until it changed when hovering over a number. Then chose closest to location.

These can be summarized as follows:

  1. Across the board, our users experienced some form of difficulty just trying to access the main site itself. This can be a huge factor in losing user interest before they’ve even seen the actual content.
  2. Most users were able find the list of wrecks by name, as the current UI does make it reasonably clear. But it certainly could look better.
  3. All users again experienced some form of difficulty trying to use the “interactive” map. Indeed, some users eventually had to be prompted in the right direction, as they were about to give up entirely. This is a major area that we can focus on and redesign to enhance the user experience.

All observation and interview data can be viewed here.


  1. Interaction Design Foundation (2016). How to Conduct User Observations
  2. Jim Ross (2014). Participatory Observation – UX Matters
  3. Kathleen Gomoll & Anne Nicol (1990). User Observation: Guidelines for Apple Developers

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