Why observation is better than questioning for breakthroughs

Problem-solving and Innovation ideas for ever-changing world

While many organizations still use traditional methods like interviews and focus groups to gather insights from customers, there is a more effective and cost-efficient method that can provide deeper insights: observing customers. By directly observing customers in their natural environment, you can gain a more accurate understanding of their behavior, motivations, and needs, without relying solely on what they report to you. This can lead to more successful product or service development and better customer experiences.

There are two reasons why observation is a better tool than simply interviewing users:

  • Behavioral Science says that people often aren’t aware of what’s really motivating them, and when asked will run their reasons through internal filters that can distort the truth.
  • We know from experience as marketers and customer experience designers, that people don’t always do what we intend for them to do. We observe to discover what users are really doing — not what they’re reporting they’re doing.

If you’re new to customer (or user) observation and want to try it out for yourself, keep a few things in mind:

  • Observe without judgment.
  • Don’t fall into the “small numbers” trap — the customers you observe are a small sample of your total users.
  • Wait to define insights until you have enough objective information

The AEIOU framework is a simple user research tool developed by ethnographic researchers to structure observations "in the field" to watch what people are doing and make sense of it.

Each letter stands for one of five related elements:

A: Activities - These are the actions people take toward the goals they want to accomplish. For example, if you want to order a product on Amazon, one activity might be searching the site. If you’re trying to order a meal at a fast food restaurant, an activity might be using a digital kiosk to find your favorite burger.

E: Environments -These are the contexts in which an activity is taking places. For example, if you’re ordering an item on Amazon on your phone you might be sitting on your couch at the end of a long day, feeling too tired to run to the store. If you’re ordering a meal in a fast food drive thru, you might be juggling requests from your kids in the backseat while sitting in a long line waiting to order.

I: Interactions - These are the routines and exchanges between your users/customers and the environment. For example, if you’re calling to order a pizza you’re interacting with the person who picks up the phone. If you use a deliver app like Uber Eats to order a pizza, you’re interacting with the app.

O: Objects - These are key elements of environments. For example, a brochure you download from a website before booking a vacation or a poster for a new sandwich at a chain restaurant.

U: Users - These are the people who are being observed.

while asking people questions may seem like a straightforward and intuitive approach to understanding their needs and preferences, observation is a more effective method for gaining deeper insights. This is because people often have difficulty articulating their true motivations, and may not always do what they say they will do. By observing their behavior in real-world settings, we can gain a more accurate understanding of how they interact with products and services, and identify pain points and opportunities for improvement. By keeping an open mind, avoiding judgment, and using frameworks like AEIOU, organizations can unlock valuable insights that drive better decision-making and lead to more successful outcomes.