Fly On The Wall
Fly On The Wall

This traditional behavior observation method allows you to secretly collect information by looking and listening. Low cost and effort, this method is an easy way to begin behavior research. Unlike other observation methods, Fly On The Wall separates the researcher for any direct involvement, which minimizes bias and researcher influence. This method can be limiting as it does not allow a researcher to probe or follow up with participants. Frameworks for note taking and methods such as AEIOU can help analyze observational data.

Discretion and note taking are both key for successful observation. Blending in will help minimize any self-monitoring or “acting” of participants, creating more grounded and valid data. Note-taking frameworks/structures and tools are also essential to this method. Frameworks and structures may be helpful to decide on before researching because they can help organize your observations. Further, determining the right documentation tools is critical and should be dependent on the environment in which you are exploring. For example, hand notes may be less obvious than documenting with your cell phone.

When finished, it is recommended that you analyze your data by clustering, categorizing, or using sense-making frameworks. To validate your insights, repeat your Fly On The Wall observation again and/or use other research methods to confirm your data.


Advantages: low cost/effort to get qualitative data; minimal bias and influence; can be done anywhere.

Disadvantages: data can be limiting and subjective; inability to further probe for understanding; may limit ability to empathize with situations.

Case Studies/Examples

Fly on the Wall Research Results Havaianas
The iconic Brazilian flip-flop manufacturer Havaianas sought to design a bag as an extension to their brand. IDEO and the brand’s European design team, headed by Miguel Cabra, immersed themselves in Brazil by using various design research methods to better understand the culture. Their Fly-On-The-Wall observations of overloaded trolleys and the way people in Brazil carry things prompted the team to create a bag that could carry items much bigger than itself. (Alexander Brown, 2013)

Hawthorne Electrics Works From 1924 to 1932 the Hawthorne Electrics Works in Chicago undertook a study to determine how varying light levels, among other spatial factors, would influence workers’ productivity. What they found was that no matter how they changed the light, productivity increased. The researchers attributed this newfound motivation to the apparent interest being shown in the workers; however a 1950’s reassessment of the observations concluded that productivity increased because the workers knew they were being monitored, not because of the environmental changes. This highlights the benefits of fly-on-the-wall observation, and has given rise to the term ‘The Hawthorne Effect’. (Alexander Brown, 2013)


AEIOU Framework
Can help make sense of data by categorizing into these observational headlines

SAY/DO Category Framework
A simple note-taking categories for capturing actions and conversations


Dress to blend in. The more you look like the environment you are studying, the more discreet your research will be.

Do not rely solely on this method as a way to gather or claim insights. The data should be confirmed with other research methods.

Attempt to perform FOTW more than once to ensure a diverse set of observations and reveal patterns.


Zeisel, John. “7: Observing Physical Traces, 8: Observing Environmental Behavior.” In Inquiry by Design: Tools for Environment-Behavior Research, 89-136. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Hanington, Bruce, and Bella Martin. Universal Methods of Design: 100 Ways to Research Complex Problems, Develop Innovative Ideas, and Design Effective Solutions. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2012.

Delta Lab. “Fly on the Wall.” Loft. Accessed 2015.