How to Use Observation in Games User Research

The Acagamic Tip Tuesday #03

Two scientists observing a player in a room. Two scientists observing a player in a room

Hey there 👨‍🔬,

Each Tuesday, I will send you a tip from the world of UX Research & Design for games. At my website The Acagamic, I focus on training people to become better researchers and designers for games and beyond.

Each tip will take less than 3 minutes to read.

Game UX Tip of the Week:

Use observation systematically to study your users in the field.

Observation is a popular UX research method often driven by our curiosity and fascination. However, it is essential to understand that observation should be done systematically and with a purpose in mind.

The benefits of knowing what to observe will make it easier for you to write up your UX report findings later.

Organization of time and space

Specifically, when you are doing a field study, channel your inner anthropologist and observe how time is organized, how makes decisions, and what kinds of activities and events are taking place. This will give you a feel for the action flow of a situation.

Please pay close attention to the layout and interior design of the space because groups and individuals tend to mark and protect their areas. Does this lead to conflicts you can observe?

Physical Objects

Objects and their use have meaning in situations. Observe the physical objects present and take note of how things are used. Can you make out what different objects symbolize in this setting? Which are private and which are public and possibly shared? Does anyone control access?

Social Actors

How people look and behave in shared space and time is key to unlocking the social complexities. Can you distinguish people’s status and social categories from observing their relationships? Do you follow a professional hierarchy based on looks and behaviours, or does everything feel homogenous to you?


Observing what people do and how is key to unlocking the underlying dynamics of a place. Watch nonverbal behaviours and what people say formally and informally (tone, topics, context are all important). Find out who communicates how, when, and where. Finally, reflect on your feelings and reactions. Why are you interacting the way you do?

Rituals, Routines, and Episodes

See if you can tease apart routine actions from unusual ones. Which rituals are formally recognized and which happen informally? Can you observe episodes or behaviour action-reaction chains between people? How do they express their emotions?

Overview picture

Acknowledge you are human

Keep in mind that you cannot observe everything. Narrow your observation focused on your research problem.

Shoutout for this inspiration to Ciesielska, M., Boström, K. W., & Öhlander, M. (2018). Observation methods. In Qualitative methodologies in organization studies (pp. 33-52). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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Lennart Nacke, PhD
Lennart Nacke, PhD

Hey there, I am a Professor and the Research Director of the HCI Games Group at the University of Waterloo in Canada. I am a world-leading expert on what makes games engaging and how we can use them to improve products, systems, and services. My research is widely discussed and recognized by the New Yorker, Forbes, MIT Technology Review, CTV News, New Scientist, The Daily Mail, PC Gamer Magazine, and elsewhere. I have edited a textbook on Games User Research and authored hundreds of academic articles in gamification, user experience research, human-computer interaction, and game design.