Shadowing Reveals Valuable Insights for the Design Process

In college, a professor once told me shadowing is the only way to understand your client’s process and discover how to improve their environment. To illustrate her point, she shared a story about when she had shadowed her mother in the kitchen.

She wanted to learn how to make a pot roast. She watched as her mother pulled two small pans out of the cabinet, cut the roast in half and put each piece in a different pan to cook. My professor asked her why she split the meat instead of cooking the whole roast in her larger pan, which was still sitting in the cabinet. Her mother’s response was, “Well, I don’t really know. It’s the way my mom taught me, and it’s the way I’ve always done it.” As it turns out, her grandmother didn’t own a large pan or have the means to purchase one, so she used what she had: two small pans.

We often see this happen with our clients and the way they use their space. Over time, people adapt to their environment and its constraints and are then forced to use what they have, even though it may not be the most efficient process or use of space. When we shadow, we gain a wealth of knowledge about how a client successfully uses their environment, but we can also recognize inefficiencies and create solutions that provide better outcomes.

When we shadow clients, a few members of the project team are brought onsite to observe how the space is used. During this time, we watch and take notes, making an effort not to disturb or alter the way our clients are working. It allows us to quickly see how spaces are used, noting what performs well and which things could be improved.

Sometimes with shadowing, we uncover simple solutions that make a large impact. Here’s one quick example of this. At the beginning of one our projects, a client said they liked the tables they currently had in their group therapy space, but wanted us to order more to accommodate their growing patient population. In the two hours we observed them work, the old, aging tables were moved into different configurations three times to accommodate multiple types of therapies. The tables were heavy with large metal legs, and the therapists had to search out other staff members to help them move the tables each time. If we hadn’t shadowed the space and observed how it was used, we would have simply done what the client asked and ordered more tables to add to the ones they had. However, we were able to suggest new tables with castors, so they could be moved more easily between therapies and wouldn’t require more than one therapist to reconfigure.

Shadowing is an important step in our guest experience approach to design. Contact us at or 913.232.2123 to learn more about how our unique process can improve the functionality of your space.

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