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The Innovation Process
Activity 1.1 C

Observe the problem

This activity will help you to generate, capture and describe first-hand observations about existing services or experiences from the perspective of the user (front end) or service provider (back end).

Often, the best way to learn about problems is to observe them first hand. This helps you gain a deeper understanding of the barriers, gaps and challenges facing crisis-affected populations and those who serve them.

By immersing yourself in the environments in which interventions are designed, carried out and experienced, you’ll be able to generate all sorts of insights around the routines, perspectives, habits, practices, relationships and patterns of behaviour of a range of stakeholder groups involved – directly or indirectly – in the development and implementation of a programme or service.

“When we started Kathmandu Living Labs, most team members came from a technology background. I had to encourage them to think beyond technology, to think about the everyday problems. I even said to them: ‘Why don’t you ride a bus for three hours, and observe what you see in our city? This is where the fertile opportunities lie.'” Nama Budhathoki, Kathmandu Living Labs (interview)

These kinds of activities can help reveal what works well, what doesn’t, and why, when it comes to existing humanitarian interventions from the perspective of the end-user as well as that of the service provider.

Things to consider

  • Ensure that the area where you carry out your observations is safe, and that your activities are culturally appropriate and do not put any of your staff or partner staff at risk.
  • Ensure that you respect the dignity of any community members involved, and do not expose them to protection risks or falsely raise expectations. Be sure to follow up with findings and feedback where appropriate.
  • Ensure you abide by humanitarian, innovation and research ethics. Ensure that you gain informed consent from any individuals who are part of the process and have robust data protection around any personal, identifiable data. If you’re recording video or audio, state exactly how you will use the recording and ask people to confirm their consent at the beginning for your records. If you’re taking photographs, produce a consent form, detailing how you will use the images, and ask people to sign their name at the end.

Direct observation


There are different ways that you might capture first-hand observations of the delivery of humanitarian programmes and the experience of those involved. Consider some of the following options:

  • Peer-to-peer observation: Looking at how other users might be tackling this problem.
  • Non-participant observation: Observe what happens in a process or situation.
  • Shadowing: Follow the ‘problem holder’ around while they are dealing with the problem.
  • First-hand experience: Take on the role of the problem holder and do what they do.

Arrange your observational activities in advance. If you are getting a guided tour of a place where humanitarian products and services are provided, think about how your tour might be organised.

Make sure that you think through how you intend to record your learning. We recommend undertaking visits with two people, one to ask questions and one to take notes. Try to find out in advance whether you’ll be able to take photos and record audio, but always make sure that you have the permission of those you record on the day.

When you are taking your tour, a useful framework for thinking about and recording your observations is through using the AEIOU tool:

  • Activities: What kind of activities are people engaged in? What steps do the processes involve? Why are they doing this?
  • Environment: What are the characteristics of the environment? How does the environment affect how people behave?
  • Interactions: Who is interacting with users? What is the purpose of these interactions? How are they carried out? What is helping or hindering these interactions?
  • Objects: What objects (or products) are being used? Are they central or peripheral to activities? How are they harnessed to conduct activities? Are they fulfilling their ‘job’?
  • Users: Who are the users? What are their needs and drivers of behaviour?

The AEIOU Design Thinking Worksheets, developed by Mark Baskinger and Bruce Hanington at Carnegie Mellon University, are a great resource to help you organise your thoughts, observations and ideas into distinct categories.

Further resources

UNICEF (2018) Demand for Health Services: A Human-Centred Field Guide for Investigating and Responding to Challenges
[See pp 62-90 for information on observations and field visits, and pp 89-90 for a template for recording observations]

IDEO (2015) IDEO Field Guide to Human Centred Design
[See pp 64-65 for guidance on Guided Tour and “Draw it!” activities]

Nesta (2013) DIY Toolkit
[See section 7 for “Experience Tour!” overview and observations template]