Assignment 3: Observation

The point of this exercise is to practice your observation and reporting skills. Once again, we’ll take as the object of this exercise the Bay Area’s public transportation system.

  • Park yourself in a public transportation zone, such as a bus stop or a train station, where you can observe unobtrusively for at least half an hour, longer if possible.
  • Decide ahead of time whether there is something in particular that interests you about that situation. But be prepared to change your ideas about what you find to be of interest once you start observing.
  • For the first 15 minutes or so, simply watch without making notes. Try to see this situation anew, as if you had just arrived from another planet. The term that’s sometimes used is “make the familiar strange.”
  • After this initial observation, decide what you are going to focus on. It may be that which you had decided ahead of time, but it may be something that caught your attention in the course of the initial observation. You need to focus your attention.
  • Possibilities include
    • Pick someone engaged in some activity and follow them (in a sense – don’t freak them out).  What are they doing? What objects are they using or interacting with?  Who do they interact with?
    • Pick a place and watch people move through it and see what they do there; e.g., the bench at a bus stop.  What do they do while they’re there?  How do they act when a bus comes into view? How do people decide who gets on first?
    • Pick an activity involving multiple people. You would follow the activity and not the individuals. E.g., watch groups of tourists figure out how to buy tickets or workers take orders at a train station cafe. Who is involved at each stage? What do they do? What objects or materials are involved?
  • Keep realtime fieldnotes. These are rough notes for yourself.  Keep distinct your facts and interpretations, in whatever way worksSome people divide the paper and put facts on one side, interpretations on the other. The point is to keep the facts separate from your interpretations, since your interpretations are only preliminary and may be erroneous; but not to lose any insights that arise while you are watching.
  • Do a complete write-up of your real-time notes as soon as you can afterward.  Fill out what you didn’t have time to write in the field.  Still keep facts and interpretations distinct – for example, some people use different typefaces; or two columns.  These would be your notes to refer back to weeks, days, months, years later, so they have to make sense.

Then write up a brief but coherent narrative for me.

  • What you did: where you went, how you set up to do your observation, and perhaps why you made those choices.
  • A general description of the scene —  enough to understand what you were seeing.  Diagrams and photos can be a big help.
  • A summary of what you observed – of your factual observations.
  • Then interpretations and conclusion about what you saw. This is more than just description, but doesn’t have to be earth shattering.

Keep distinct (1) what you see, and (2) your interpretation of what’s going on.

You’ll have three products:

1. Rough notes made in the field

2. Your detailed write-up of your rough notes

3. A summary for me.

Turn in:

#3, above

A couple of pages from #2

Photos are a plus, but not required.