DOs and DON’TS for research – Zeisel, Observing Physical Traces

Observing Physical Traces


  1. When you find a trace ask yourself what caused it, what was the person that created it intending, and what sequence of events led to that trace.
  2. If there is something unique in a particular area, mention that it is not common.
  3. Make sure you decide to use the right method of recording depending on the research situation.
    1. You could make voice recordings and diagram when the area is simple, the objective standardized, or when the two-dimensional plans will be studied.
    2. Take photographs to record your observations. This method is particularly useful when you are looking at a place that is not very accessible to you because it is far.
    3. Consider counting as another method of recording. It would be ideal to have a checklist of what is going to be counted before arriving at the place.
  4. You should time your observations to avoid confusions with the daily cycles on the data.
  5. In your physical traces look for by-products of use (Erosions, leftovers, and missing traces), adaptations for use (props, separations, and connections), displays of self (personalization, identification, group membership), and public messages (official, unofficial, illegitimate).


  1. Don’t make a hypothesis about causes, intent, and sequence with the trace alone.
  2. See the traces that don’t stand out as well. Always ask yourself “What’s missing in here?”
  3. Earlier traces can encourage later ones, which means they have a cumulative quality. Make sure you observe those changes and don’t assume that each act is independent to an earlier one.
  4. Do not confuse erosions that signify bad design or erosions that reflect uses that designers planned for.
  5. When analyzing connections, don’t assume that the users made all of them because they want it that way.


Observing Environmental Behavior 


  1. Remember that people from different cultures interpret behavior differently. Use that as part of your observations.
  2. Decide thoughtfully what kind of observer (secret outsider, a recognized outsider, full participant, or marginal participant) you are going to be in your research.
  3. Be flexible on what type of observer you are, and be prepared to change if the situations call for it.
  4. Write down explicitly your reports. It will help your team members to check your interpretations.
  5. If you want to minimize the Hawthorne Effect, you could spend more time on the space that you are researching, which will make the individuals to start to take you for granted.
  6. Always test your assumptions.
  7. Make use of the recording devices (notation, precoded checklists, maps, photographs, videotapes, and movies) that will be the most useful for you.
  8. Write your notes on the left margin and leave the right side of the page for individual or group analysis.
  9. Look for the who (actor), what (act), with whom (significant others), relationships, context, and setting.
  10. Make your data descriptive. For example write: “a smiling person” and not “a happy person.”


  1. Do not assume that everyone feels the same way you do in a particular situation. Write down these observations, but mention those are a testable hypothesis.
  2. Don’t forget that when subjects know they are being observed, they are likely to change their behavior, which is called the Hawthorne Effect.
  3. Don’t wear clothing, or carry objects that will bring unwanted effects if you are acting as a marginal participant or full participant.
  4. When observing a group of two, and you are not sure what the relationship between them is, describe each separately.
  5. Don’t forget that your observers might be from a different culture than yours. Mention what you see, and wait to interpret when you are considering all the aspects together.

I am an international student from Venezuela that desires to communicate with the world around me visually. I hope that I can become a part of the global conversation where I can tell stories that are untold. With a background in business and languages, I have experienced how different fields will always connect at some points, and I aspire to reinforce that connection in my work. I believe that there is not one pure aesthetic, and therefore I have chosen to collaborate and learn from those around me to every day grow as an artist.

Leave a reply

Skip to toolbar