Shadow Activity



Spending time in the natural environment of your user to observe their everyday activities, realities, constraints and/or challenges associated with a specific activity or activities in order to gain understanding and empathy.


Shadow Activity Guide

This guide was developed for activity shadows conducted during fieldwork in Dharamsala, India with the Tibetan Exile Community. This is a generalized guide, meaning it was not created for a specific organization or person.


The Shadow Activity allows you to learn from and observe your stakeholder without disrupting or shaping the context of your interaction with them. It also enables you to draw out contextual clues and realities that are not always obvious to your stakeholder because they are so embedded in their everyday reality.


The Shadow Activity allows you to gain an understanding of the contextual nuances of the stakeholder(s) by observing and being present without interrupting the flow of their real life. By being present for an extended period of time, you are able to pick up on and observe flows and constraints that may not be obvious to the stakeholder, but impact the way they conduct business, communicate, and operate in their daily lives. Examples of such things that may not come up in an interview or group convening, are power outages that impact their lives and the function of the tools they use to communicate, the set-up of their home, office or space and its impact on their communication patterns and habits, and the tools they have available to them to conduct their daily activities, which they may be so accustomed to that they don’t explicitly call them out.


1). Pre-Shadow

Identify a time and activity: Often the most successful Shadow exercises emerge following an interview where you have identified a relevant activity for you to attend and observe. Typically, a Shadow Exercise requires two to three researchers who spend between four and five hours with the stakeholder.

Format: Identify who from the research team leads the interaction while another team member records with video and a still camera, and a third supports by taking notes. Understand the context of the situation you are observing. For example, if you are attending the first four hours of the day at a local radio station, know the schedule, who will be present and where you will be spending time.

2). During the Shadow

Introduce yourselves, explain why you’re there, be friendly, smile and develop a sense of rapport with those in the room, and then sit back and observe. Pay attention to the environment, how the room is set up, familiarize yourself with the technical tools available and constraints that impact the flow of the work and the day. Throughout the activity, the lead should ask many ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions to understand what you are observing, but also be able to fade into the background to observe as well. Be prepared to pull individuals aside for more formal Intercept Interviews or full Interviews (see above) as relevant. For the notetaker, be sure to timecode the notes, delineate questions and answers, bracket thoughts that are yours, and pay attention to environmental factors such as number of times the power goes out, etc. Be sure to take notes as close to the actual words of the participant as possible to stay true to their intent and nuance.

3). After the Shadow

Sit down as a group at a neutral place NOT in the presence of the stakeholders to pull key takeaways from the experience and different observations each of you had regarding the experience. Take note of what was interesting and/or plain weird.

Examples From The Field:

Shadow Activity: Voice of Tibet