Zeisel’s List of Do’s and Don’ts for Observing Physical Traces

Inquiry by Design: Tools for Environment-Behavior Research

John Zeisel


  • Be critical and ask questions
  • Become a full participant
  • Observe in context and notice setting
  • Use annotative diagrams, recordings, drawings, photographs
  • Be aware props change settingĀ (also change in space)
  • Look for displays of self/personalization/identification
  • Look for official messages


  • Observe unobtrusively/passively
  • Be aware of “selective deposits” (some activities don’t leave physical traces)
  • Be unaware of predictable activity signs due to timing of observations
  • Rely on illegitimate messages

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