Observation techniques for business analysts

Business analysts use observation techniques to gather information by watching and understanding workplace activities.

It is used to identify needs and opportunities, understand business processes, create performance standards, assess solution performance, and facilitate training and development.

Observation of activities or job shadowing, is the act of studying a work activity as it is being performed. It can be performed in either the user’s work environment or in a recreated test environment.

There are two approaches for observation and they are:

  1. Active/noticeable: while observing an activity the observer can ask any questions as they occur. Despite this interruption to the workflow, the observer can quickly understand the reasoning and any undocumented processes within the activity.
  2. Passive/unnoticeable: in this approach, the observer does not interrupt the work while the user is performing the work activity. Any questions would be asked once the observation is over. This allows the a natural flow of events to be observed without interference by the observer, as well as the measurement of the time and quality of work.

Observation techniques has some components, which include:

1 Observation objectives: The observations session has to have a comprehensible and set objective with a described goal of the observation session.

Objectives of an observation session may include the following:
• Understanding the activity and its components such as tasks, tools, events, and interactions.
• Spotting opportunities for enhancement.
• Setting up performance metrics.
• Evaluating solutions and validating assumptions.

2 Prepare for observation: Preparing for an observation session involves organizing the observation approach based on the objectives and deciding on the suitable actors and the time when these activities would be carried out.

While preparing for an observation session, business analysts should think about the required skill and experience levels of the participants, the number of the activities being observed, and any existing documentation and analysis related to the work activity.

Preparing for observation also includes creating a plan of the observations. The plan for observation ensures that all stakeholders are appraised of the goal of the observation session, they agree on the expected results, and that the session meets their expectations.

3 Conduct the observation session:

Before the observation session, the business analyst should do the following:
• clarify why the observation is being carried out.
• assure the participant that their personal performance is not being assessed and that the results of this observation, among others, will be analyzed as a whole.
• assure the participants that they can stop the observation at any time.
• suggest that any concerns can be shared during or after the activity based on which approach is being used either the active or passive approach.

During the observation session, the business analyst should do the following:
• Intently watch the person performing the activity and note any expected and and unexpected steps, the method in which any tools are used, and the
information content.
• Document what is seen, the time taken to perform the work, its quality, any process peculiarities, and the observer’s own questions.
• ask inquisitive questions either while the work is being performed or soon
after the observation session.

4. Confirm and present observation results: after the observation session, the business analysts should assess the notes and data recorded from the observation and follow up with the participant to get answers to any outstanding questions.

The information is then collected, summarized, and analyzed against the objectives of the session. The organizational needs and opportunities for improvements are then communicated to stakeholders.

Observation techniques have their strengths and limitations, which include:


  • It allows the observers to get a realistic and practical view into the activities and their tasks within an overall process.
  • It allows for the identification of undocumented steps as well as any workarounds.
  • The efficiency of the process can be viewed, realistically measured and assessed for improvements.
  • Proposals for improvements can be supported by objective and quantitative evidence.


  • It may be distracting to the performance of the participant and the overall organization.
  • The observer can feel pressured and threatened.
  • Due to observational awareness, the participant may change their work practices.
  • It requires a considerable amount of time and resources to properly conduct the observation technique.
  • It is not suitable for assessing knowledge-based activities because they are not directly observable.