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Methods – Observation & Shadowing

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What it is:

Designers carefully observe real-life situations for a set amount of time to understand how people behave within a given context. This method can help to uncover the reality of what people really do – as opposed to what they say they do. Shadowing an individual on a journey or activity can be used to identify opportunities for design and quickly understand a particular design context. Generally, there are three types of observation: natural (covert) – no interference from the investigator; controlled (overt) – the designer sets a task and observes it being carried out; and participatory – the designer actively joins in the activity being observed to gain a firsthand perspective.






Low | Medium | High

Low | Medium | High

Low | Medium | High

Low | Medium | High


Insights and information on how people behave

Best suited to:



Earlier stages of the design process

Forming an opinion quickly on a particular topic at the early stage of a design project or testing a hypothesis

Gaining a detailed insight into a specific task, activity or journey



Type of interaction:


Goes well with:

Focus Groups, User Forums, Interviews, Provocations

What designers say about it

“When shadowing, don’t turn subjects into respondents by behaving formally or asking structured questions. Remember, the key output is the capture of naturalistic observations and events…’ – Siamack Salari


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Design and Dementia

Designer Gregor Timlin observed residents in care homes to gain an initial understanding of dementia care and shadowed Bupa care staff through their training. Both natural and controlled observation techniques were used. The insights gained were used to redesign care home products.

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Living and Working

Dr Yanki Lee shadowed residents of Westferry Studios in London Docklands, the UK’s first social housing work/live development by the Peabody Trust, to understand the tensions of living and working in the same space.

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Background and further reading

Seonaidh McDonald (2005), Studying actions in context: a qualitative shadowing method for organizational research, in: Qualitative Research, Vol. 5, No. 4, 455-473

This article has reviewed key studies of shadowing as a research method and developed a threefold classification of different modes of shadowing. This work provides a basis for a qualitative shadowing method to be defined.