Field Observation

Learn how work is actually done in real circumstances. 

Observing people in the context of their work environment can be used to gain insightfield observation into how individuals and teams perform their work. By watching intently in actual work settings, understanding “emerges from the researcher’s own observations and interviews out in the real world rather than in the laboratory or the academy” (Patton, 2002:11).

Observation can allow insights and access to information that is difficult to obtain via other methods. Observations can enable first-hand discovery of operational and environmental demands --such as the heat and vibration of a locomotive cab. It can enable insight into how communication occurs across the team and what inhibits effective information flow (e.g., noise level, unreliable radios). It can also illuminate what affects operator’s attention and strategies they use to manage it.

Field observation can be particularly useful for highlighting disconnects between “work-as-done” versus “work-as-imagined” (Hollnagel, 2012). Work-as-imagined refers to what managers or authority figures believe happens (or should happen) on the job based on how it has been trained or prescribed through regulations and operating procedures. Work-as-done is what actually happens in reality, as operators adjust, make trade offs, and adopt work-arounds to perform their work efficiently and safely. 

Field observation is most useful when combined with other methods for understanding human performance, including operator interviews or verbal protocol analysis.

Tips for Performing Field Observation:  

Determine whether field observation is feasible. In some cases, it may not be possible due to logistics or concerns about interfering with the operators’ work. In these situations, you might explore the possibility of video recordings, or using alternative data collection methods.

Develop an observation guide that provides a set of topics or questions to focus one’s attention while observing. Potential topics include:  

  • Use of technology, tools, and physical artifacts
  • Coordination and communication across the team
  • Workarounds

While an observation guide can be useful, it is also important to remain open to discovery.

  • Describe the purpose of your observation to those you are observing.  Observers who come across as informed, sincere, and there to help improve the operator’s tools and work environment will be more likely to be accepted by the operators (Crandall et al., 2006).  
  • Be as unobtrusive as possible, so as not to interrupt or impede the work being observed.If the operators understand your purpose for observing, they will be less likely to alter their behavior due to your presence and more likely to work as they do normally.
  • Take detailed notes on the events and behavior you observe. It can often be useful to capture the flow of activity as it happens, and then organize or categorize the information at a later time


Hollnagel, E. (2012). FRAM: The Functional Resonance Analysis Method: Modelling Complex Socio-technical Systems. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

Patton, M. (2002). Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods. 3rd Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

For more on Field Observation, see:

Crandall, B., Klein, G., and Hoffman, R. (2006). Working minds: A practitioner’s guide to cognitive task analysis. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Nemeth, C (2004). Human factors methods for design. Boca Raton, FL: Taylor and Francis/CRC Press

Stanton, N., Salmon, P., Walker, G., Baber, C. & Jenkins, D. (2005).  Human factors methods: A practical guide for engineering and  design. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing.