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User Observation for Creating Gold Star Learning Solutions

Photo by Chase Clark on Unsplash

At Belvista Studios we take on a human-centred design approach for our projects. It enables us to solve the right problem, create a solution that is fit for purpose and make a difference. A core part of human-centred design is gaining a deep understanding of who we are designing for. This can be achieved through practices such as user workshops, interviews and environmental observations.

Our team has come to realise the importance of user observations specifically and how they can add value to learning projects. User observations enable you to see what actually happens in the day-to-day life of users and provides you with valuable insight that may not be obtained through a workshop or interview.

What people say does not always reflect reality and this is where observations can provide you with that missed (and often crucial) information.

Think of an iceberg. User interviews provide you with information that you hear, which is the visible 10% part of the iceberg (e.g. a user telling you something). User observations on the other hand can provide you with insight into information, beliefs, values and experiences that may not be spoken about (the hidden 90% part of the iceberg). Every situation is different and user interviews may provide you with important information that user observations would not. What we want to share through this blog is that user observations can be just as important and can provide you with information that even the users themselves do not consciously know.

A great example of this in action was demonstrated during a flight crash investigation on the television show ‘Air Crash Investigation’.

After a plane crashed, a team of investigators were assigned to finding out why the crash happened and how to avoid it in future.

Investigators found that an important alarm signal had not sounded that contributed to the crash.

A number of pilots from the same airline were interviewed to discover how this could have happened. The interviews revealed that pilots were not missing important steps and that there were no signs of error taking place.

An investigator decided to observe the pilot’s environment and shadowed one of the pilots on a routine flight. The investigator asked the pilot to show him how the alarm could be disabled (if it was even possible). The pilot put his hand behind the seat and pressed a button to disable the alarm. The pilot did not need to look for the button, he knew exactly where it was. The button was worn and it was evident that it had been pressed multiple times before. The pilot sheepishly revealed that some pilots switched the alarm off as they were annoying when they sounded without reason. This piece of vital information changed the whole direction of the case and was revealed as the reason for why the crash had taken place.

Eric Laurier, who uses ethnography to study human behaviour, sees himself as a, "Professional stranger," someone who becomes "part of the group being studied—walking in their shoes for a while." (Whitemyer, 2006). 

  • Would attending a current onboarding program help you understand how to design an improved version? 
  • Would sitting in the passenger seat of a truck help you understand how to best incorporate a new process into a truck driver’s day? 
  • Would shadowing a leader help you understand what leadership skills would add the most value to them?
As instructional designers, observing your user’s environment may not always be possible—your clients may not realise the importance of observation or the project may not gain value from it. What we recommend is that you assess each of your projects and discover if user observations would add value. If they would, explain the benefits to your client or boss and immerse yourself in your user’s environment in a way that is realistic for your circumstances.

That is it for this blog. We hope that it has provided you with insight into the power of user observations. Do you incorporate user observations into your instructional design process? If so, we would love to hear about it! 

If you would like to discuss this topic in further detail please do not hesitate to contact our passionate founder Kim via or by connecting with her on LinkedIn.

If you like this blog, you will like our Human-centred Design Playbook for instructional designers and learning and development practitioners. This will be the toolkit for the rest of your career. It enables you to use the principles of Human-centred Design to create effective learning experiences and solve business problems. Learn more here


Whitemyer, D. (2006). Anthropology in Design. Retrieved from

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