Participant Observation

The participant observer technique is:

  • The most commonly used anthropological tool
  • Immersing yourself in the situation and/or site
  • Becoming a commonality to the people on the site
  • Taking notes on what is observed
  • Interviewing people (informants) on the site to get a more-in-depth look at the culture

Case Study      

A commercial baby products manufacturer was looking for a fresh perspective for their diaper line.  Being in a highly competitive product category, they did multitudes of research and didn’t believe there was a new perspective on their product line.  Nonetheless, the team was charged with discovering new consumer needs and new product concepts.  The team decided to do a series of interviews with people not in the normal target market. They interviewed and observed mothers or caregivers who had a physical disability that inhibited their diaper changing ability.  During the research, the team was asked to simulate different types of physical impairments in order to better understand the perspective of the mothers they were observing and interviewing. 

The hypothesis was that those with physical impairments had the same difficulties as the target market but with a slight exaggeration.  The hypothesis was correct.  Every day, mothers struggle with squirming babies while trying to grasp the sticky tab. The target market mother may not have mentioned this in everyday conversation because it was one of those accepted parts of the product, but a mother with severe arthritis or a mother missing some fingers made it more obvious to the team.  The series of interviews led to product innovations in the diaper category, and the team gained a fresh perspective in looking at their target market.

 How to be a Participant Observer

Immerse yourself in the culture of your research site. For instance, if you are visiting a construction site, you could carry materials, hammer nails and eat lunch with everyone on the site.  You should know enough about the industry before entering the research site to be able to hold a conversation with the construction workers.  Learn the language, slang, and jargon of that industry.

While immersed in the site, take notes on what you observe

  • Things you could observe:
    • Interactions between people
    • Body movements
    • How the work is done
    • How many times something is done
    • Layout of the site
    • Smells, Sounds, Tastes
    • What you see
    • Textures
    • Number of people
    • Organizational structure
    • Personal space between people
    • Nonverbal communication signals
    • Product interaction and uses
    • Comments made by customer
    • Reactions of customer

After immersing yourself, take time to organize your notes into an ordered format, to get perspective on what you have learned.

  • Possible ways of doing this:
    • Removing yourself from the site or culture.
    • Taking time while still on the site to organize your thoughts on what you have observed.

After gaining credibility and trust, begin to conduct interviews with those around you.

Practicing Your Skills of Observation at Home or Work

  • Recruit a friend to use your product or service for the first time.  Participate along with them.  While participating notice what types of things they encounter. Are there problems?  Are they happy with the product?  Are there inconsistencies?  Record your observations and then debrief what you learned after the time together.
  • Pick your favorite activity that involves interaction with other people.  Find a group of people to do the same activity. Participate in the activity and observe the group dynamics, environment,etc.  Look for cues into the culture of the group, activity.  Look for new product ideas based on what you learn from the group.  Record all of this in your field book and then make applications, connections and implications to the industry and its products/services.

No Comments Yet.

Leave a comment