Observational Research

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has pioneered the use of observational research for evaluating energy efficient technologies in the built environment

Collage of photos demonstrating observational research


Observational research

Observational research provides key opportunities to learn new information that may be missed with other research methods. Traditional research and data collection quantifies information and provides answers to what is occurring, but observational research allows for association and understanding of why these things occur.

The research method is inherently flexible and adaptable during the data collection period. The research narrative and free-form observational tools allow for continuous data collection and capturing of information that can be missed initially using other more structured tools, like surveys. Understanding and addressing the human factor issues related to energy efficiency is critical to ensuring savings potential is realized and adoption is persistent.

Observational Research for the Built Environment

For years, energy efficiency programs have focused on the installation of energy efficient technologies, with anticipated savings typically determined through modeling, engineering calculations, or controlled field experiments. Yet measurement and evaluation completed after the fact have frequently found that the technologies are not delivering the anticipated savings. What happens in the real world when these technologies are installed, configured, and operated that leads to this disconnect?

To find out, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has pioneered the use of observational research for evaluating energy efficient technologies in the built environment. The method uses non-participant, real-time observational research in conjunction with technology performance evaluations and traditional surveys and interviews to discover and document challenges with human and technology interactions.  

The process of observational research chart
Successful adoption and implementation of advanced or emerging building technologies is critical to a resilient future. This graphic outlines the process of observational research. (Graphic: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Applying Observational Research to Other Technologies

There are many factors to consider for determining whether observational research would be beneficial to an emerging market technology. Visit our case studies here. 

  • Is the technology ready or near ready for market adoption?
  • Does the technology involve a high level of human interaction (installation or use)?
  • Does the technology incorporate many connected devices/action and/or sophisticated controls?
  • Does the technology require a change of practices in how products are installed or configured?
  • Are different trades coming together in new/different ways (e.g., facility managers, electrical contractors, information technology professionals)?
  • Are trades/users not familiar with the equipment or process?
  • Is there limited market uptake for an existing technology for seemingly unknown reasons?

Contact Information 

Ruth Taylor
Advanced Lighting Project Manager 
ruth.taylor@pnnl.gov | (503) 417-7570

Research topics