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Design and humanities: the role of observation

Design and humanities: the role of observation

A team of multi-disciplinary and complementary professionals

The Banque Populaire Atlantique-LIPPI Chair on Connected Environments is run by a team of multi-disciplinary and complementary professionals. Hilda Zara, a researcher with a doctorate in sustainability studies, explains the advantages of applying a cross-disciplinary approach and sheds light on a unique and fundamental role in experimental approaches: observation.


Observation is the systematic description of behaviours, events and artifacts in a social setting.

What is observation? What is the point of adopting the position of observer for assessments?

Observation is the systematic description of behaviours, events and artifacts in a social setting (Marshall and Rossman, 1989). It is a way of approaching social phenomena as they occur in real environments. In the social sciences there are various types of observation. If we place them in a continuum, on one hand there are the very structured and standardised observations in which the observer is removed from the phenomenon which he is observing in order to gather quantifiable data (number of people, number of objects, frequency of previously categorised behaviours, duration of behaviours), which can be processed using statistical tools. On the other hand, there are very loosely structured and non-standardisable observations known as participant observations, in which the observer is in immersion in the field, which gives him a greater understanding of why and how these interactions take place in a specific context. In this type of observation, the researcher becomes a participant in the daily activities that he is trying to understand and therefore thinks constantly about his own experiences and his role in the activities he is observing. While observation is a fundamental method in social research, it is rarely used exclusively. For example, a researcher conducting a participant observation would also carry out interviews and can develop other tools, which will enable him to establish exchanges with and between the participants more easily.

In the context of user research, observation is a very useful method for understanding and assessing users’ experiences of a product or service. In situ observation becomes key when we explore issues which users cannot respond to directly. Either because they don’t think about it, because they think that their own behaviour is not necessarily representative of their daily practices, or because the responses we obtain are too biased as the users give an answer which they consider to be the “right” one. Sometimes, observation is the only way of reaching the individuals or groups affected by the issue in question (Goodman, Kuniavsky and Moed, 2012). This is often the case for research carried out by our Sustainable Cities MDes students as part of their projects destined for public areas. In the complexity of urban societal issues, observation in the field can help us identify flows, times and places of strong interaction, difficulties experienced by individuals and groups – in other words, give us a better understanding of the social practices and customs of the people who inhabit and bring these areas to life.

Why mix observation and design? What is the benefit of combining the humanities and design?

Observation as it is defined and practiced in the social sciences can provide vital information for the creative process. Using analysis of their observations reassures designers about the relevance and social impact of their concepts since they are addressing real and well-defined needs. However, for designers, observation is much more than just collecting and analysing data. With their own sensibility, designers have another way of approaching observation which also inspires their work. For the designer, field observation is very much focused on their curiosity, paying special attention to details which catch their eye, visual documentation, discussions with clients, storytelling and exploration of details. Design is characterised not by data but by an understanding which is unique to design. The observation work of a designer has another specific feature, namely that the designer produces tangible tools to advance their understanding which is also enhanced by the use of models and prototypes (Koskinen, Zimmerman, Binder, Redström and Wensveen, 2011).

Collecting information to gain a better understanding of the processes.

How important is observation for the experiments carried out by the Banque Populaire Atlantique-LIPPI Chair on Connected Environments?

For the experiments that we carry out with the Banque Populaire Atlantique-LIPPI Chair on Connected Environments, observation serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it is one of the methods we use to collect information about users and their use of the spaces, products and services which we experiment with and which will be used in the different stages of the design projects (ideation, modelling and assessment). In this case, the chair’s approach is very interesting because it aims to cross-reference loosely structured immersive observations with environmental data collected using MIDIR sensors. MIDIR sensors provide us with data which tells us exactly how many people are present in an area at a given time, passage frequency, the duration of certain interactions, as well as the temperature, humidity and noise level. On the other hand, qualitative or participant observations help us understand why or how the interactions identified by the sensors happen.

In addition, we make systematic observations throughout the whole experimental process. The aim of these longitudinal and real-time observations is to gain a better understanding of the very processes of design-led experimentation within a pedagogical framework. How do designers and students tackle a complex project? Which tools do they use to gain a better understanding of their context and why? What tools do they develop? How are these tools developed? How do they incorporate the various elements of their research into proposals for services and conceptualisation of space? How and when do they interact with the users of the space and services in question? What challenges do they face in these processes? These observations help us take a critical look at our own design-led research approach but, above all, they enable us to communicate our experiences and improve our working methods.

Post published within the Connected Environments Chair blog