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From Jakob Nielsen, Field Studies Done Right: Fast & Observational




  • Assuming it's done in the wild, it allows for understanding context or work
  • Enables understanding how users understand their work
  • Analyzing goals of work
  • Ability to follow-up and clarify as the conversation is happening 
  • Builds relationships


  • Relies on user to self-report accurately and at the right level
  • Experts often have an inability to describe what has become subconscious (unconscious competence)
  • More time intensive for facilitator than with surveys or focus groups
  • Can miss subtleties since user's will likely leave out what they think are unimportant details

For more on interview technique techniques see:


"Users are perfectly capable of expressing their latent needs.  They just can't do it verbally.  That's why we do ethnography and empathic research" - Rich Sheridan, Menlo Innovations


  • Allows you to watch what people do rather than rely on what they say (self-report)
  • You are more likely to discover unmet user needs as you watch them do their work and can identify areas they struggle
  • You can truly understand how users get their work done in context
  • Allows for observing subtleties of work -- you'll see things like post-it note cheat sheets they require to remember how to get through system
  • Overcome experts' inability to describe what has become subconscious



  • Can be a significant time commitment, particularly if you observe for extended periods of time
  • Difficult to be "a fly on the wall" and really just observe without interrupting by just being there or asking questions along the way
  • Relies on observers' interpretation
  • Can be challenging to know what to pay attention to if a lot is going on

For more on observation technique techniques see: