Observations allow you to collect information about people’s behavior or about physical places using your own senses (especially your eyes and ears). Observations are done systematically using a protocol.

Observations can be done by people that are part of the community, or by people that are “outsiders”. 

Things to prepare before the observation

  • Where and when/how often do you want to do your observation, who do you want to observe, and which behaviors or physical characteristics of places are you interested in? (this is related to your research question)
  • Go to the place where you plan to conduct your observations and watch, so that you have a sense of who is moving around there, what people are doing, and what it is like to be an observer there.
  • Decide who in the research team will do the observations and how you want to assign different parts of the planned observations. For example, will several people observe the same place at different times, or different places at the same time; or will several people observe the same place at the same time, recording different kinds of information?
  • Create an observation protocol. This is usually a sheet of paper (or digital notepad) which includes the time and place of observation, name of the observer, as well as a table with the categories of behavior or of the place that you are interested in, such as:
    • Number of people being in the place or moving through
    • People’s behavior: e.g. leaving their trash on the table or on the floor, interacting with others or being alone, asking questions
    • Physical characteristics: e.g. level of noise, amount of trash, lights switched on or off 
    • The protocol needs to include information about how to assign each of these categories (e.g. how do you distinguish “low amount of trash” from “medium amount of trash”?). Discuss this in your research team.
    • Leave a place in the protocol for general notes.
    • Practice using the protocol in your team. Try to have two observers observe the same location at the same time independently and then compare your notes. Did you record the same information? If not, how does the protocol need to be adapted?
  • Think about the ethics of your observation (are you observing and recording behaviors that people would rather not want other people to know about) and if possible, get informed consent from the people you are observing.

Things to pay attention to during the observation

  • Are you using the observation protocol as objectively as possible – i.e. recording what you are seeing and hearing without judgment or bias? You can make separate notes about your subjective experiences or about your interpretations of what you observe.
  • How obtrusive is your observation? Do other people notice that you are observing, and how might this affect your observation? 
  • Did people approach and distract you during your observation? How did you handle it and how did this affect your observation?
  • Take notes of anything else going on that might be of interest later when analyzing your observation data.

Things to reflect on after the observation

  • How did you conduct yourself as the observer and how did you feel? Would you do your observations differently next time? 
  • How was it to use the observation protocol? Was there something that remained unclear or confusing, or something that is missing?
  • How might your observation have affected the community or the place? 
  • How similar or different was the experience for everyone in your team? How might this affect the reliability and comparability of your observation data?

Analyzing observation data

  • Observation data can be qualitative and quantitative. Quantitative data is analyzed using quantitative data analysis methods, usually with the help of spreadsheet programs. Qualitative data is analyzed using qualitative data analysis methods
  • Transfer your observation data into a spreadsheet for further analysis. The spreadsheet should contain columns for observer, time and place of the observation, and a column for each of the categories in the observation protocol.

Further resources: