Using the Observation Technique to Identify Problems and Opportunities

“To acquire knowledge, one must study.
To acquire wisdom, one must observe.”

Marilyn vos Savant

One of the most powerful techniques to employ for problem identification is Observation. This method is used to elicit information by viewing and understanding someone or a group of people in their environment. This enables you to watch how people accomplish their work, the steps they follow as they move through processes, and the manual entries they make.

You’re also able to observe and compare the process they’re following versus the ‘standard or best practice process’ or how others in their role are accomplishing the same tasks. These observations provide you with insight into pain points, roadblocks they are running into, workarounds they use, and clues as to where you can suggest adjustments that would generate value.

For example,

  • You may hear a Sales Support person grumble about how inefficient or ineffective their process is. 
  • You may see a Senior Manager become frustrated because they aren’t able to get the critical data out of the system for their important client meeting.
  • You may see a system throwing errors and warnings that users are absent-mindedly clicking through, without any thought or attention.

These are just a few example scenarios that could easily be observed, might grab your attention, and encourage you to ask questions to determine if these are issues that could be solved.

The Observation technique allows you to ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’ and it is from these direct learnings you can better identify the root cause or underlying problem. 

While informal and non-scheduled Observations happen periodically, the most beneficial uses of this method are often those scheduled ahead of time. Pre-scheduled observations often follow one of three formats.

Active Observation (Recognized by the BABOK)

During an Active Observation session, you actively observe someone doing their work. You observe someone conducting (or walking through) their normal processes, talking about some of the features of certain software that they’re using, and showing the steps they take to perform their tasks. You then are able to ask questions and gain clarity about what the user is doing and why. These conversational details can really help to understand the challenges being experienced and help you understand the processes involved and the tools being used, so you can make recommendations for more efficient, user-friendly, and ‘business friendly’ solutions.

Sometimes the goal of Active Observation is to know how users are doing their work in comparison of how they could or should be doing it. This provides you clarity on if and why they skip certain steps, spot if there’s room for efficiency changes or adjustments, and identify zero-value tasks that are being completed because “that is how it has always been done.” (Side note: this phrase is the bane of every BA’s existence, but points out the huge potential for value creation.)

Benefits to Active Observation

    • Facilitates quick answers, clarifications, opinions, and insights
    • Enables the quick understanding and reasoning behind certain steps and processes

Constraints to Active Observation

    • Users are not as efficient and productive due to workflow interruptions and interferences
    • Many observees get nervous and may perform the tasks differently than they typically do, providing misleading information

Passive Observation (Recognized by the BABOK)

During a Passive Observation session, you are often required to be silent, passively observing someone doing their work. You are not allowed to interrupt users to ask questions or gain additional details, but instead should take notes and ask any follow-up questions after the session – often via email or in a separate discussion. Since there is no interruption of the normal process, Passive Observation is really useful for those types of jobs where timing is key, and interruptions are wholly impactful. 

For example, let’s imagine someone working on an assembly line. The line workers before the employee are adding parts to the widget, when the widget reaches the observee they fulfill their role/function and pass the widget down the line for the next steps.  

Conducting an Active Observation would interrupt or delay the participant, thus reducing efficiency and directly impacting the amount of product being produced, while also not providing a true representation of the process (because of the interruption). In this instance, using a Passive Observation allows you to gain more accurate insights, without reducing the efficiency in which products can be delivered.

Benefits to Passive Observation

    • Allows the flow of events to be observed naturally
    • Enables the recording of timing and how long it takes to complete certain actions

Constraints to Passive Observation

    • Delays answers, clarifications, opinions, and insights until sometime after the session
    • Often requires more detailed notes to understand the context of what was happening at the time and form proper, useful questions

Participatory Observation (Not recognized by the BABOK)

Similar to Active Observation, in Participatory Observation you get to engage and interact during the session. But there’s a catch: you don’t just actively watch the observee complete their tasks, you also participate. This allows you a hands-on experience of the process and provides you with a more detailed understanding of what is done and why. When you’re unfamiliar with a process, system, or software that you’re using, you tend to ask more questions, including “Why?” This allows you an even deeper insight into the process, its steps, and the pain points experienced. 

Benefits to Participatory Observation

    • Hands-on experience to gain a deeper understanding
    • Generates additional questions that may have not come up without participating
    • Establishes more credibility and rapport with the observee

Constraints to Participatory Observation

    • Reduced productivity and output
    • Often requires longer observation sessions

As the title suggests, the Observation technique is all about observing while typical job duties are performed. But it’s up to you to decide which type of observation technique – active, passive, or participatory – is the right fit for the project you’re undertaking. While one of the processes, roles, or systems you’re observing might be appropriate for one type of observation, others may require alternate methods of observation.  Whether it be done actively, passively, or while participating, Observation is a great technique to help identify problems that can be solved and opportunities that can create value.

– Written by Jeremy Aschenbrenner, The BA Guide


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