Shadowing (contextual observation) is a qualitative ethnographic research method where a researcher observes a participant in her natural environment over a (set) period of time.
What is shadowing?
A researcher observes – shadows – a research participant for a certain period in a real-life scenario. The researcher does not interfere to avoid that the participant deviates from her usual behavior. Of course, the presence of an observer will always have an impact but the goal is to keep this impact as low as possible.
Shadowing can be combined with diary studies where you ask the participant to record experiences or a certain task over a set period. This becomes useful, when you cannot travel to the participant or if the task happens at times where you cannot observe directly. In case of software, you can ask the participant to record herself and share the screen recordings with you.
When to do shadowing?
Generally speaking shadowing is perfect to get contextual insights. You witness first-hand the environment and specific situations. In addition you learn about behavior and attitudes. Being on-site increases empathy towards the participant: see what the participant sees.
As a holistic method it can be used as extension for other research activities. You might use it to get broader insights how organizations work (organizational studies) but you can also narrow it down for very targeted user research purposes such as understanding how a specific job is executed or how a specific product / service is used.
“Observing people in the real world is particularly useful in the early stages of a project, as you can gain deep insights into the scope of the problem and the context in which it exists. Learning about what is really going on can help you create realistic rather than idealized products / services. It also helps in understanding the emotional values people connect to in your product or service.” – Marsh (2018: 161)
- How do certain personas execute their activities / jobs in their natural environment?
- How do certain personas interact with other roles / departments?
- What work-arounds, tools are used to carry out a certain activity?
When creating a User Journey, shadowing can become a great additional technique to deep dive into the process and discover critical steps and waiting times.
Usage of your product or service
Shadowing can help to understand better how users interact with your product or service.
- What find users satisfying? (gains)
- What find users annoying? (pains)
- How they use your product or service? (work-arounds, usage together with other tools, etc.)
- What are their habits?
- What are existing behaviors?
- Attitudes towards your product or service
Everyday work / life scenarios
Shadowing is a great technique to deep dive into everyday life. In a work context it helps to connect the person (persona) and the role (job). Here, shadowing can support discovery research where you want to identify new opportunities or better understand your users (personas).
- When something is done?
- How is it done?
- Why is it done?
Be aware that shadowing has also some downsides:
- Shadowing takes more time as observations stretch usually over a longer period of time.
- You might not be able to fully control when the shadowing sessions take place as there might be dependencies on other activities.
- There might be additional travel expenses if you shadow activities on-site in the natural environment.
- You might not be able to access all locations. (Example: work space of the participant as she moves from one department to another)
- Different participants might execute the same tasks in very different ways. It is important to record differences and adjust the sample size based on those observations.
Data analysis will be more complex as participants act differently and you want to discover patterns. Therefore, be specific about what you want to learn.
How to do it?
Effort on time on participant side
As time and effort on the participant side is high, make sure the participants see the benefits of this study for them to keep them engaged. You can also think about incentives you provide over time when certain milestones are achieved.
Planning and preparation
As with every research, you first define
- Objective: what do you want to learn?
- Long-term behaviors or the process you want to observe
- Number of participants
- Stakeholders and required deliverables
Think about potential risks and complexities to decide if you need to run a brief pilot before the study.
- Explain, why you are doing this research and how their contribution will support the overal objective.
- Talk about your expectations towards the process to align how it can be executed.
- Make them aware that you will not intervene during the observation.
- Provide your contact details.
If you expect that it might not be possible to shadow all activities for a certain task, agree how it could be possible to document this periods. For software you can agree that the participants record themselves and share the recordings with you in such situations.
As soon as there is another person present, it has an impact on the situation. Therefore, it is important to set the stage each time. Make sure the participant understands that you will just observe and not interfere. Build trust!
Depending on what you observe, it might be easier to agree on a certain procedure to include some interaction after the observation:
- Observation until an activitiy has been completed.
- Very short follow-up interview about the activitiy: you can ask the participant what can usually go wrong or what parts are experienced in a positive way. You might also have some observations that need clarification.
In some situations it might be helpful to ask the participant to think aloud.
You can apply Empathy Mapping to document motivations and emotions.
A observer should not get involved but there are sometimes situations where you can get involved to get additional insights. If you are not sure how the research will go do a brief pilot to understand complexities. The goal is to make your data comparable.
There might be situations where you need to combine shadowing with other research techniques. If you want to get a better understanding of a process for instance, you can additionally to shadowing think about a role play where the participant becomes a trainee:
“Imagine, you will go on vacation and I should be able to jump in for you. How would you onboard me?”
Diary studies are another research method you can use in addition to shadowing.
After you have analysed the data, execute a follow-up interview to discuss the outcomes in detail where further clarification is needed.
Deliverables depend on the research target.
Real time raw data
- Observation sheet per participant
- User Journey
- Verbal and non-verbal Behavior
- Waiting times
- Pain points
- Outcomes can be helpful to create evidence based personas
- You can combine it to not only understand a certain work context but also private life
- How do people interact with other?
- How do teams interact with other teams?
- How are work environments organized?
References and further reading material:
- Chipchase, Jan (2017): The Field Study Handbook, San Francisco: Field Institute
- Marsh, Stephanie (2022): User Research. Improve product and service design and enhance your UX research., United States: Kogan Page Limited
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