User research: How to observe users and gather insights for innovation

Any type of innovation has a human component. Whether you are solving a problem, improving a process or creating a brand new product… people will have to interact with your creation. Customers, partners, colleagues, a target audience… there will always be people to take into account. Therefore, user research is essential in any innovation process.

User research (figuring out what users find important and/or are struggling with) seems simple enough.  But to make the most of your field research, you should be aware of a few important things. Below are some steps that will help you gather useful insights.

Before the observation

A proper observation of users starts before you have even left your desk. If you want the best results, it’s important to make sure you’re well prepared.

Create an observation brief

Define what you want to observe and for how long you want to observe it. If you have several subjects, think about the order in which you want to observe them.

NEVER define what you expect to see during the observation! This will inevitably lead to tunnel vision. Whatever you expect to see, you will see eventually. You are looking for objective customer insights, not for confirmation of your expectations. Instead, describe your observation in general terms; We want to observe how people eat breakfast, we want to explore how millennials visit the movies, we want to see how our customers interact with our product etc.

Plan the observation

Arrange the observation upfront. Also, think about the activities or touchpoints in your customer journey that will be interesting to watch. Where do you want to observe your subject? What is a good place to discover insights? When is a good time to observe your subject?

If you want to observe an individual, find someone and make an appointment with them. If you want to observe a specific location, make sure you are both allowed to visit the location and to take photos.

If possible, visit the location beforehand in order to discover the ‘best spots’ for your user research. This way, you know for sure that you have a good point of view for your observation. This will also prevent you from being stuck in a ‘death spot’ where nothing happens.

Get a decision-maker on board

Always observe in pairs. Two pairs of eyes and ears will discover and remember more. If possible, it’s best to bring a decision-maker or your client along. Even if you record your findings people will still question your observations when you present them. Especially if they are experts. However, if you observe together with them, they will support your ‘observation insights’. After all, they have seen it themselves!

During the observation

Collect data

Record everything that you find interesting. Write down what you actually see (stick to facts, steer clear of opinions) and record for each ‘event’ the time, date and location. If possible, capture your observations on film or record the audio. (Always ask permission)

Adopt a beginner’s mindset

When you observe, it’s important to adopt a beginner’s mind. You want to take on the perspective of a child. Observe like you see things for the first time and look for things that you find fascinating. Tom Kelley, partner at the famous design agency IDEO, calls this a ‘Vuja De’. IDEO borrowed the term from Stanford Professor Bob Sutton, who adopted it from the comedian George Carlin. A ‘Vuja De’ is the opposite of a Déjà Vu. It means being in a familiar environment but looking at it with fresh eyes, as if you have never been there before.

Sometimes it can be hard to look with ‘fresh eyes’, especially when you are an expert. One way to overcome this is by running a ‘test observation’. Simply run a short test observation beforehand in an unrelated environment. Observe an unrelated subject you have nothing to do with. For example, go to a shopping mall, bookstore or library and try to apply a ‘Vuja De’ mindset. What do you notice that you haven’t seen before? Did you find something new? Great! Now you are ready to try it on your own subject.

Search for patterns

Keep an eye out for repeating patterns. Are there certain things that several people are saying? Is there specific behaviour that you notice when observing multiple users? Are there items or problems that you see in several locations?

Explore what’s missing

Apart from looking at what you see, you can also keep an eye out for what’s missing. The things that people DON’T do (or say). Or things that could be there but are not. What are things users don’t have with them? What would you expect that’s missing at the moment?

After the observation

Fill in the gaps

Often you have seen and heard much more than you have recorded. That’s why it’s valuable to go through your notes and discuss them with your observation colleague. Replay the observation in your mind and see if you have missed anything important. Create a separate document or use a different colour to complement your notes. This way, you’ll know if you have written it down during the observation or afterwards.

Look for insights

Group your results and map out your findings. Put them into categories such as; user types, time, location, specific actions etc. Look for things that are interesting or remarkable. Sometimes insights show up instantly during the observation, while at other times you will discover them when you look closely at the overviews of the results from your observation.

Generate new questions and assumptions

Discuss with your team what the most fascinating things are that you have discovered. Go through your notes and all other evidence (photos, videos, audio recordings etc.).

Every observation will lead to new ‘unknowns’ that could be important. Generate a long list of questions (e.g. why does our customer need to fill in two separate forms?) and assumptions (e.g. we believe that our customers are upset about the waiting time) and choose which of them need further exploration. Think about ways to uncover the missing information and/or to test your assumptions.


Do you want to know more about user research?

User research is an important part of creative problemsolving. It helps you to discover valuable insights and real customer problems worth solving. How can user research be applied in your business? And where should you start? We’ll gladly help you set up the right approach. Send us an email at and let’s talk innovation.

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