The Well Coached Observer

September 23, 2016 by Kathy Costello


Over the years Level 7 researchers have conducted many studies that called for us to talk to people in person – either by meeting them in their home, tagging along on a shopping trip, or shadowing them during some activity. These types of studies present an excellent opportunity for our clients to see and hear for themselves how people are using their products.

However, our clients are not researchers and they don’t necessarily know what to expect during an interview, so we strive to prepare them as thoroughly as possible. It’s important to agree ahead of time on what their role will be during the interview, if any. We typically provide client observers with a written set of guidelines that we review together a few days before the interview.

Specific guidelines vary from study to study, but here is a core set of talking points:

  • Discuss the overall structure of the interview. We walk through the interview from beginning to end, even touching on relatively minor things like asking observers to wait for participant consent before setting up recording equipment (if that’s their role), or waiting outside until the whole team arrives. The objective is to ensure that they are clear on role expectations and logistical issues. It’s also important to go over the discussion guide even if they’re already familiar with it. We emphasize that the guide is not a survey of fixed questions to be administered in person – it’s a guide – and as long as the participant is talking about relevant subject matter there is no need to redirect or adjust the line of questioning to match what is in the guide.
  • Observers should know their role. If observers are going to be responsible for recording the session or taking pictures, make sure they know how to work the equipment as well as the expectations regarding transporting it to and from the interview. If they’re taking notes, agree on how/when the notes will be disseminated to the team. We generally ask our observers to jot down a few notes or observations as key ‘takeaways’ to share after each session.
  • Expect the unexpected. We tell our observers to be ready to go with the flow and that flexibility is key. The team may be asked to remove their shoes, someone may have to sit on the floor or stand during the interview, there may be someone in the household who smokes, be prepared for numerous interruptions from children or others, and chances are there will be a pet of some sort who may or may not be happy to meet you.
  • Let the primary researcher lead the discussion. You don’t want to derail a naturally flowing, pertinent conversation with a question that isn’t relevant to the topic at hand. So agree in advance how you want to handle questions from observers. Researchers have their individual preferences but we usually ask observers to hold their questions until asked – at least for the first few interviews.

There are benefits to including a client observer in the data collection process and we encourage our clients to consider observing at least a couple of in-field interviews. We’ve been told many times that the first-hand experience of seeing and hearing everything within the context of real life makes it easier to internalize the findings and as a result, makes the data more meaningful.