Clipboard with floorplans and observation forms

Using AEIOU to structure ethnographic observations

Ethnographic observation methods allow us to capture a narrative of everyday life in a care home. BESiDE researchers have spent many months observing and capturing snippets of activity in care homes in Scotland and England.

We needed a structured way of recording these human-building interactions. We utilised the AEIOU technique to enable observations to be documented under 5 mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive elements of Activity, Environment, Interaction, Object, and User.   This technique originated at Doblin in the 1990s and was further refined by elab. It is a common heuristic in the field of Design Ethnography and we built on the version described by Bella and Hanington in Universal Methods of Design.



Goal/intent driven action(s) that indicate what users want to do

What is the context of the objective or intent behind Interaction(s)?


Context description of the space (inclusive of smell, atmosphere, sound etc.)

What environmental factors are affecting activity?


Exchanges that happen between people, spaces, building elements or things. (Interactions result in Activities)

What exchanges are happening between people, spaces, building elements or things. (Including Object and User)?


Components of the space. The things that are being used and interacted with (e.g. a chair, the T.V. remote control, a window)


People who provide the behaviors, needs, and preferences to this study

Researchers used a paper form to record details of each captured observation.  A written description was recorded under each of the headings on the form:  Activites, Environment, and Interaction.  Objects and Users were highlighted in the Interaction text using a @ symbol followed by a sequential number to identify particular users and a # symbol with a sequential letter to highlight objects.  A tally of what users were present in the space on any occasion was also kept.  This encouraged researchers to capture a holistic recording viewpoint and in a structured way which allowed for easier future understanding of the data.

BESiDE Adaptations

The AEIOU heuristic provided a starting point to understand the context of a situation. However in the context of the BESiDE study, there were two elements that were not being addressed - Wellbeing and Spatial Relationships.

We needed another element which was focused on highlighting when the building affected wellbeing. Therefore, elements of Wellbeing, taken from Gov. office for Science's Foresight project "Mental Capital and Wellbeing' were added to our framework. Read more about our use of the Ways to Wellbeing framework here.

In addition to descriptions relating to the AEIOU-W Framework, we defined space codes to identify the space the observation was happening in and used floor plans to capture details of the spatial interrelations.  This spatial information combined with the textual descriptions helped us to relate the data to the building elements.


The BESiDE team have made use of this refined technique to capture over 500 observations from 6 care homes in Scotland and England.  The resulting data is made up of textual descriptions, structured codes (such as space, time and observers codes) and annotated floor plans. We are using this data to build insights into the effect of environmental factors on the activity of the home. Read more about our approach to analysing this data here.