Looking Through the Fence: Student Observations on Observing

Observation is a key UX skill, and one that anyone can practice in daily life.  But a “human-centered” approach in design often means stepping outside of oneself, and outside of one’s comfort zone. It’s harder than one might think to focus on the action in front of you and to put aside your own self-consciousness. What’s more is that as an outsider in any social situation, one must consider their approach. How do you make strangers comfortable in your presence? How do you separate

At UX Night School’s workshops in Portland, we take as many opportunities as possible to critically engage with the city around us, the people who live and work here, observing technology, systems, infrastructure, and what they call “human factors”. 

Here’s one account from Paul Thompson, a developer who joined the workshop this summer.


It’s not often you come home and tell your spouse, “Hey! I just got done observing skaters at the skate park under Burnside bridge and I feel like I could have been in a fight!”

As a student at Portland’s UX Night School our (fearless) leader Amelia brought us to this Portland skate park to give us hands on experience with user observations. She asked for a volunteer to capture video on a small camera. Eager and ignorant I said I’d do it. Our timeline was 20 minutes.

As I got near the park two things stood out to me, the amount of concrete and the chain link fence around the three quarters of the perimeter. A newbie to this kind of observation, I thought there’s no way I’m going to get good notes looking through the fence. It didn’t even occur to me I could be unobtrusive, across the street, and get plenty of data. I was definitely nervous since I was in the “big” city. I come from a west side suburb and basically have lived in suburbs my whole life. I pushed that nervousness down and plopped myself down on the sidewalk outside the actual ramps with notebook and camera in hand.

There was plenty to see and hear so my writing was furious. Trying to be diligent, I also kept the camera rolling as best I could. Something told me I shouldn’t be bold with my videoing. I kept the camera low and to my side. I wasn’t trying to hide it but I also didn’t want to shove it in people’s faces either. Things went okay for a while but then I decided to move. My thinking was, I got good notes from this spot but I don’t want to limit my perspective or the perspective of the video. This is when trouble started to brew.

What I noticed from the new vantage, and thinking back where I just was, was that the observers were also being observed. The skaters and their non-skating friends were watching me and likely watching the other UX Night School observers. There were a few unheard conversations and glances in my direction. I even heard someone say something like, “That’s not right, you shouldn’t be doing that man.” Maybe I was in the zone or maybe I didn’t want to fail as an observer but it didn’t click with me.

From my new spot, about 12 minutes in, I still was taking notes and still using the camera. At this point a young woman asked me what I was doing. I explained we were observing for a class. She let me know that that was cool but also made it clear that she was asking for the rest of the people because they would want to know and they wouldn’t like not knowing. I chalked this up to a good result because I had explained myself and she seemed fine with what I was doing. I was wrong.

About a minute later a bearded bespectacled skater, who was waiting to do his run above me, asked me what I was doing. I basically said the same thing that I said to the young woman. He was not pleased and let me know with “How would you like it if someone came to where you are and watched you?” I tried to explain that it was for a class. That did not placate him, he was clearly angry and we went back and forth a few times. I decided my words weren’t helping. I let the camera drop, closed my notebook, raised my hands and said I was done. 

I moved across the street. Amelia let us know there was still seven minutes to go. I have to admit that was disappointing to hear. I changed tactics: Time for mental notes.

What did I learn from this experience? I learned a ton but right now I’ll pass along just one nugget for future observers. If you’re going to observe a group of strangers close up (not across the street), find and engage the leaders and ask for permission. If you don’t get permission, walk away.