Why observation is an excellent method for agile frameworks

Observation is a key method to gather real client insights.
Observation is a key method to gather real client insights. - Foto: Canva.com/Stroisch.EU

To gain real insights about your customers and users, you have to contact them. One method for doing this is observation – it’s simple yet unfortunately used far too infrequently.

The “Observe” phase is an elementary component of Design Thinking. Other methods, such as Scrum, also provide for the direct involvement of different stakeholders in the development process. Of course, it is also absolutely recommended in classic waterfall methods. And there is a reason for this, which I would like to derive from journalism. Here, I namely assume that a good text is created as follows:

  • 75 percent: content
  • 20 percent: structure
  • 5 percent: style

In other words, the often-cited writing skills are the result of the content. Style is just the icing on the cake. But to get good content, you have to do research. In my daily work, research accounts for about 90 percent of a finished text; writing takes me only a fraction of the time. However, I am, of course, a professional writer.

Flawed research leads to false insights

But if I do “bad” research, I get “bad” content. Transferred to agile methods, this means that I then simply don’t get good insights. Broadly speaking, the research consists of about three ways:

  • Interview
  • General research, for example, on the web
  • Observation

Experimentation, which is also popular, is a sub-method of observation, in my opinion. Unfortunately, while the interview is still apparent, many agile teams do without observation. Yet it is often much easier to implement and brings excellent insights.

Example: a developer wants to develop an app that helps people save money. It would be undeniable, for example, to sit down with a bank advisor in the branch for a day to find out about the real concerns, wishes, and problems of savers that occur daily – instead of thinking about them at the green table.

But that rarely happens.

Observe with all senses

It is pretty simple. The only thing you need to bring as an observer is a lot of time and a pad and pen. The rest works almost by itself. Observations cannot be made in five minutes instead of in five hours. And two groups of impressions play a significant role in observation:

  • Sensory impressions: All five senses, not just sight, are used. So also smelling, tasting, hearing, and feeling.
  • Scenery: Not only the dialogues of the observed are essential here, but also their behavior and the context in which they behave.

If you observe well, you observe details above all. It’s a fundamental rule of journalistic reporting that you draw conclusions from the piece to the general – and not vice versa. However, we tend – and this is quite normal – to want to understand the general first before looking at details. However, when it comes to observation for our agile projects, it should work the other way around.

Unfortunately, a statement is again very abstract. Therefore, here is an example from nature: You can look at the tree as a whole, just one branch or even just one leaf, and on the leaf may be just the hoarfrost drop.

The exciting thing is that if you decide to describe the drop of hoarfrost – which is not so easy – you are conveying a critical mood. You probably don’t even need to write that you are here on a cool morning. It creates “cinema in the head.”

Now sometimes, the thought is obvious to ask what this has to do concretely with the customers. It has a lot to do with them: It describes the context in which the customer is currently moving. And it is indisputable for me: The context also has a massive influence on his behavior.

Capture the observation

As I said before, I believe that intensive observation takes a lot of time. Now there are different methods to capture it. Video, photos, audio recording, and bullet points on a piece of paper. From my own experience, I would advise you against all of these methods and suggest writing teasers.

Teasers introduce a text so that everyone immediately wants to read on. Teasers may consist of three to four sentences. I wouldn’t be so strict about that now. But it should not be more than one or two paragraphs long for our purpose.

And now, you do nothing else in the complete observation phase but write teasers continuously. Take a break sometimes; leave something out. Practice sensory observations or scene descriptions. In the end, you will have written an immense amount of text. Pay attention to the following:

  • Write short sentences rather than complicated ones.
  • Avoid adjectives and adverbs if possible.
  • Write in solid verbs.
  • Do not write your own opinion and evaluation.

Use the results

Now you have written a lot of teasers. Choose the ones that appeal to you the most, that trigger you. When I write a report, I use only 5 of the maybe 20 teasers I wrote down. The ones that I think are the most expressive show the most atmosphere.

These teasers provide the most real insights into natural customer behavior in agile methods. In other words, they trigger you to think about the actual problems of your existing customers or users.

You then process them, for example, into jobs-to-be-done or how-might-we… statements, build a user story, a persona, or an empathy map from them, incorporate insights from them into a lean canvas, and so on. There are endless places in the agile process where you can use the insights.

But the main goal is and remains: The results should trigger you and your team. That’s why I would always recommend that the team conducts these observations themselves, perhaps under guidance. Because the findings from this should not simply be consumed but deeply internalized.

Jörg Stroisch is an agile coach and journalist focusing on design thinking. He offers basic workshops around Design Thinking. He also offers special workshops on interviewing and observation in agile projects. www.stroisch.EU

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