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As Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot just by watching. Watching how people do things is a great way to learn their goals and values, and come up with design insight. We call this needfinding. This assignment helps you train your eyes and ears to come up with design ideas. Your goal is to uncover user needs, breakdowns, clever hacks, and opportunities for improvement.


You are observing an activity, or set of activities, for the purpose of designing one or more improvements. You don’t need to restrict your observation to people using computers and the Web. If you’re designing for an activity that people don’t currently use computers for–or where non-digital tools have benefits–then observe people doing the task as they do it now. Observing the strengths and weaknesses of analog tools can inspire ideas for the digital world. Where people are using software, remember to observe and interview people in situ — using their computer, their software, in their environment, doing their activities. Context matters. If you have mobility limitations, perform your observations and interviews over email, phone, Skype, and/or video chat. If for whatever reason you’re interested in activities that are tough to observe — maybe because they’re infrequent — you can augment your interviews with diary studies. Make a list of types of people you might interview and situations you might observe to come up with design insights. Think about different types of everyday users, marginalized users, and extreme users. Also think about other stakeholders in the ecosystem. Think about the characteristics of these users. For example, remember the IDEO design team that was asked to redesign the grocery shopping cart. Their interviewees included not just everyday users, but also extreme users like professional shoppers and other stakeholders like store managers. Often, lead users or extreme users have come up with better solutions and creative tricks than designers. Interviewing and observing marginalized users not only helps us create more inclusive designs, it also often highlights issues that everyone has to varying degrees.

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Pick an everyday activity of your choice

Choose an activity that is easy to observe, has at least one clear goal associated with it, and involves multiple actions. For example, this activity could be driving, walking to class, cooking a meal, playing a sport, exercising, or a set of activities at work.

Consider the following:

  • What is the goal of the activity?
  • Who is taking part in those activities?
  • What are the important events, or actions that are taking place to accomplish the goal? (e.g. walking, talking, sitting, watching, carrying, throwing, etc).
  • What are the microevents? (clicking a button, checking the speedometer)
  • Who is taking part in each individual activity? What are the roles? (e.g., driver, passenger; student, librarian)
  • What activities are people doing vs computers?
  • What tools are being used? (books, computers, phones, cars, sensors, etc)
  • What kinds of tools could be used more effectively?

Observe three people carrying out the specified activity. One of the people can be yourself.

Choose people who are not similar to yourself in some way (for example, they are studying different discipline, working a different type of job, have a different family situation). Your goal is to observe the successes, breakdowns, and latent opportunities that occur during the activity. Observe how computers are currently used to carry out the activity, how they are NOT used, and how they could be used to support your chosen activity.

During the observation, in addition to taking notes, use digital photographs or sketches to document activities, but do not use a video camera. This is because your choice of moments to capture with a photograph or sketch is what is important, as it shows specific successes and breakdowns. Be sure to get permission first if you are going to take a picture?

It should take you approximately two hours total to make all three observations and document effectively – if you have planned carefully. It will take longer if you haven’t!

Remember, these photos and sketches are meant to document your actual observations:

  • Caption your photo or sketch to explain what it is you have observed. A photo or sketch of someone at a computer or writing on a pad of paper is not sufficient to explain your point to the instructor. Make sure you provide an explanation of what’s happening.
  • Using stock photos/art is plagiarism and is unacceptable.
  • Irrelevant images or sketches that do not relate to the task at hand are no better than not including one at all – make sure it makes sense to your instructor!

Identify opportunities for improvement. Brainstorm a list of specific opportunities for design innovation that would enable computers to better support the activity you observed. You don’t have to invent the next iPhone! The opportunities could be small improvements or enhancements to existing technologies.

Brainstorming is a group activity and should be fun! You are free to brainstorm with anyone around you to generate as many interesting ideas as possible. All ideas are good ones at this stage, and you should generate at least 15 of them: go for volume. You are not looking for solutions yet: focus on user needs and goals only.

An example of a potential improvement might be “Sometimes, when Scott takes the train home, there is no room for his bike and he has to wait for the next one. Scott needs a way to plan what train to take based on how much room is available in the bike car”.

It is helpful to use to phrases “needs a way to” or “needs to be able to” as you list your potential opportunities.

What’s this for?

A UX agency perspective by Mike Davison, Community TA and UX Project Manager:

Needfinding is probably the most important part of any UX Designer’s arsenal. Without it, your design team could spend months designing a solution that completely misses the point. You will be surprised at how much you can learn, especially when you vary the audience. Take the smartphone. In all likelihood, you will have seen an elderly person press the screen harder and more slowly when it does not respond as they had expected. Needfinding research has suggested that this relates to 50s, 60s and 70s technology – the technology this age group are familiar with…this technology often does yield a different result if you press harder. Why is this useful? Well perhaps we could develop interfaces that took into account the pressure the user applies, and not just where they apply it? How could we make the interface itself easier for the elderly user? Needfinding is a very powerful way to generate ideas.


  • Build the submission file using MS Word.
  • Begin by describing the activity.
  • A captioned photograph or sketch from each person you observed. The photo and caption should capture a particularly interesting moment/breakdown/work-around from the observation. (You should have a total of 3 photos with corresponding captions for each).
  • A list of needs/goals/tasks inspired by what you observed (at least 15).
  • Upload you completed work (in a single, MS Word, file unzipped) to Blackboard in the appropriate spot under assignments.

Example student submissions from the past are attached!

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