Observing the Audience: viewing behaviours in the wild

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‘Rockefeller center observation deck’ by Ralph Hockens on Flickr. Used here under creative commons license Rockefeller center observation deck (1)

It’s always fascinating watching other people watching TV. Not in the Gogglebox sense, with its stage-managed commentary on the content, but actually watching what people do and how they behave in front of the television.

Observing how audiences behave ‘in the wild’ provides a wealth of insight which allows us to dig into the underlying needs which trigger these behaviours.

Last year I sat down with a friend of mine, let’s call him Nick, to watch the UEFA Champions League match between Real Madrid and Liverpool.

Nick is a fanatical Manchester United supporter. Whenever he watches them play, the rest of the world may as well not exist, such is the extent of his focus on the game. Unfortunately Nick has had to endure a (relatively) rough time as the previous season they failed to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in almost 20 years.

Despite his team’s exile from European football’s elite competition, Nick still watches a lot of European football. Intrigued by what I would learn from Nick’s behaviour while watching a match which didn’t involve his beloved Man Utd, but instead their fierce rivals Liverpool, I sat down to watch it with him.

Here are a few of the things I learned about Nick’s user needs while watching live football.

Remate Cabeza by Jan Solo, used under creative commons license Liverpool and Real Madrid in Champions League action (2)

The need to stay up-to-date

We watched the live match on the main TV in the living room, with Nick simultaneously streaming Sky Sports’ coverage of the goals and incidents from other matches as they happened that evening on his laptop.

“I’ll have the live game on the main TV because there is a better image. There’s generally more going on, so I prefer a better picture. I watch [Sky Sports News] in shorter bursts, so the standard of the image [streaming] is good enough.”

Nick likes to keep up-to-date with other fixtures and save himself from having to catch-up later:

“I like to see what else is going on. It saves me having to watch the highlights later.”

Nick doesn’t have time to watch a full highlights show later on, so being able to keep on top of all the other action as it happens is extremely valuable.

Throughout the evening, Nick’s attention shifted constantly, switching between the laptop and the TV, depending on where the action was.

“I kind of filter out the sound of whichever one I’m not watching.”

Nick’s attention was pulled between screens by signifiers of interesting or exciting incidents and rarely settled on a screen for longer than five minutes. Audio cues were particularly influential, with increases in volume, changes in tone and speed of the commentary and certain words or players’ names drawing his attention.

With no particular team to root for in what turned out to be a relatively uneventful game, Nick could quite easily have lost interest in the match. However, the constant updates of action from other ongoing games provided an alternative when interest in the main fixture waned.

The need to socialise

In addition to the coverage on TV and streamed on his laptop, Nick supplemented his experience of the match by reading commentary on Twitter on his smartphone throughout, particularly in the build up.

“Let’s have a butchers on Twitter, see the reaction to Stevie [Gerrard, the Liverpool captain] being left out.”

Lineker Tweet 1

Nick kept his smartphone to hand throughout the game, sporadically checking Twitter to see the reaction to incidents throughout the game.

“It’s just for amusement really. I like to read pros’ viewpoints and just see what is happening.”

He also wrote some tweets of his own to ‘wind up’ Liverpool supporting friends, bringing an element of social engagement to the experience.

This combination of commentary from people he follows and conversations with his friends is important part of Nick’s experience of the evening’s football. For Nick, football provides a context for social interactions. Interacting with others on Twitter allows Nick to engage in the conversations around the evening’s football and a social depth to the commentary which is personally relevant to him.

The need to share

Adapted from ‘Sharing’ by Ben Grey on Flickr. Used here under creative commons license 'Sharing' (3)

Coupled with Nick’s need to supplement his evening viewing with commentary from social media is his need to share content as part of the conversation around the match.

During the evening, a goal from another ongoing match was shown on Sky Sports, which reminded Nick of a goal scored by a Man Utd player over 20 years ago. Nick paused the coverage of the match on TV and used his phone to play the goal via Chromecast the video on YouTube to the TV screen.

“Lee Sharpe scored a goal like that for United back in the day, hang on let me see if I can find it to show you.”

In showing me this video, Nick is placing the narrative of the goal within the context of his own personal memories and experiences. Broadcasters already use historical footage to place football into historical context, both in the build up and aftermath to a game. This Chromecast intermission, however, demonstrates how audiences can leverage VOD archives to find and share footage which may have greater personal relevance.


As broadcasters and content providers look to capitalise on the opportunities of multi-screen experiences, they need to understand how and why audiences are engaging with content across devices.

Observing users’ behaviours in the wild and uncovering the underlying user needs which trigger these behaviours provides a wealth of insight and help to inform the basis of good design and strategy.

In the case of Nick, a multi-screen viewing setup enables him to curate a multi-layered and engaging experience of the evening’s football. Underpinning this experience is the need to connect with content in a way which is convenient, personal and social.

It would be great to hear your thoughts and experiences of conducting user research in the wild. You can send me feedback at

Image References

(1) ‘Rockefeller Center Observation Deck’ by Ralph Hockens on Flickr. Used here under creative commons license.

(2) 'Remate Cabeza' by Jan Solo on Flickr. Used here under creative commons license

(3) Adapted from ‘Sharing’ by Ben Grey on Flickr. Used here under creative commons license.

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