Looking for the “aha” Experience
Paul Skaggs, IDSA, Associate Professor | Brigham Young University
This paper discusses the value of observational research to the industrial designer and the design process, the importance of the designer participating in the observation, and how observational research can lead to innovative or “aha” ideas in product development.
What is Observational Research?
A dictionary defines observation as “1. paying attention: the attentive watching of somebody or something 2. observing of developments in something: the careful observing and recording of something that is happening, 3. remark or comment: a remark or comment on something that has been noticed 4. record of something seen or noted: the result or record of observing something such as a natural phenomenon and noting developments.” 
One definition of research is “Research is formalized curiosity, it is poking and prying with purpose.”  In a research survey on the aptitudes for industrial designers, curiosity was mentioned most often as a required aptitude for a designer.  Great designers are curious; they poke and pry. Einstein said,
It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instructions have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulations, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this goes to wreak and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. 
It is hard to teach students to be curious because it has been strangled out of them, but we can teach research methods that will help them experience the power of curiosity. Observational research is one of those methods.
Observational research is a component of ethnography. Much has been written about ethnography in relation to design in the past few years, but there is a difference in the ethnographer’s approach to observation and the designers. The ethnographer is concerned with analysis; the designer is concerned with synthesis. The ethnographer is avoiding making judgments; the designer is required to make judgments. The ethnographer looks at a prolonged activity; the designer requires information quickly.  A number of ethnographers use a number of methods each having a different goal. Ethnography methods include ethno methodological or informed observation, which is a long-term immersion in the setting to observe, record and compile an amount of data about the setting and its members, a “quick and dirty” or innocent observation, which is a brief ethnographic study to provide a general understanding of the setting and its members; an evaluative ethnographic study to verify/validate perceptions or theories about the setting and its members; and a reexamination observation to verify assumptions about the setting and its members made by other observations.  All these methods have validity in the design world, but the one that is important for the designer to be personally involved in is the innocent observation, which is defined as a brief ethnographic study to provide a general understanding of the setting and its members. This is observational research that applies more directly to the designer.