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Observational Research

Have you ever people-watched at a crowded café or observed how shoppers behave in a store? Congratulations, you've already engaged in observational research! Observational research is a method of gathering data by watching and recording the behaviors of people, animals, or objects in their natural environment. In this article, we'll explore the definition of observational research, its types, advantages and disadvantages, and various examples of how it's used in marketing research. From observing shoppers in a supermarket to studying animal behavior in the wild, let's dive into the fascinating world of observational research!

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Observational Research

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Have you ever people-watched at a crowded café or observed how shoppers behave in a store? Congratulations, you've already engaged in observational research! Observational research is a method of gathering data by watching and recording the behaviors of people, animals, or objects in their natural environment. In this article, we'll explore the definition of observational research, its types, advantages and disadvantages, and various examples of how it's used in marketing research. From observing shoppers in a supermarket to studying animal behavior in the wild, let's dive into the fascinating world of observational research!

Observational Research Definition

Observational research is when a researcher watches and takes notes on what they see happening without interfering. It is like being a naturalist who observes animals without interfering. In the case of observation, a researcher would observe human subjects without manipulating any variables. The goal of observational research is to gather information about behavior, attitudes, and beliefs in a natural setting without changing the way people behave.

Observational research is a type of research design in which a researcher observes participants in their natural environment without intervening or manipulating variables. It involves watching and taking notes on behavior, actions, and interactions and can be used to gather information on attitudes, beliefs, and habits.

Imagine a researcher who wants to study how children interact with each other on a playground. They go to a nearby park and observe the children playing without interfering. They take notes on what games they play, who they play with, and how they communicate with each other. From this research, the researcher can learn about the social dynamics of children's play and use this information to develop interventions or programs to promote positive interactions.

Direct vs Indirect observation

Direct observation happens when researchers watch the subject perform a task or ask them direct questions. For example, in a study of young children's behaviour, researchers observe them interacting with other children on a playground. In contrast, indirect observation studies the results of an action. For example, the number of likes or views on a video helps researchers determine what type of content appeals to customers.

Any data can become observational, including text, numbers, videos, and images. By collecting and analysing observational data, the researcher can determine how customers behave in a particular situation and which factors influence their decisions. Observational research can sometimes help describe a phenomenon.

One common type of observational research is ethnographic observation. This happens when the researcher can observe the subject interacting in everyday situations, such as in an office or home.

To learn more about other primary data collection methods, check out our explanation of primary data collection.

Observation Market Research

Observation market research is a method of collecting data about consumers by observing their behavior in a natural or controlled setting. This type of research is used to gain insights into how consumers interact with products, packaging, and advertising in real-world situations. It is often conducted in combination with other research methods, such as surveys and focus groups, to provide a more complete understanding of consumer behavior and preferences.

Observation market research is a research method that involves observing consumers in a natural or controlled environment to gain insights into their behavior and preferences. This type of research is used to inform decisions about product design, packaging, and marketing strategies.

Imagine a company that sells smartphones wants to know how consumers use their products. The company could conduct observation market research by visiting consumers' homes and observing how they use their smartphones in their daily lives. The researchers could note which features and apps are used most frequently, how consumers hold and interact with their phones, and what types of content they access. This information could be used to inform decisions about product design and marketing strategies that better meet consumers' needs and preferences.

Types of Observation in Research

Types of observation in research include:

  1. Naturalistic and controlled observation

  2. Participant and non-participant observation

  3. Structured and unstructured observation

  4. Overt and covert observation

Naturalistic and controlled observation

Naturalistic observation involves observing people in their natural environment without manipulating variables, while controlled observation involves observing people in a controlled environment where variables can be manipulated to create specific conditions. For example, naturalistic observation could involve observing people's behavior in a public park, while controlled observation could involve observing people's behavior in a laboratory setting.

Participant and non-participant observation

Participant observation happens when the observer becomes a part of the group being studied and actively participates in the activities being studied. In contrast, non-participant observation involves observing from a distance without becoming a part of the group. For example, participant observation could involve joining a group therapy session and taking notes on the interactions between group members, while non-participant observation could involve observing a public meeting from a distance and taking notes on the behavior of attendees.

Structured and unstructured observation

Structured observation refers to observing people in a structured setting with predetermined activities, while unstructured observation involves observing people without predetermined activities to observe. For example, structured observation could involve observing children's behavior during a specific game, while unstructured observation could involve observing the behavior of patrons in a coffee shop.

Overt observation and Covert observation

Overt observation involves observing people with their knowledge and consent, while covert observation involves observing people without their knowledge or consent. For example, overt observation could involve observing people in a focus group discussion, while covert observation could involve observing people through hidden cameras in a retail store.

Advantages of Observational Research

Observational research comes with many benefits, including:

More accurate insights

The customers may not remember the full detail of their actions or do something different from what they say. In such cases, the information collected can be inaccurate, resulting in wrong conclusions. To improve the reliability of data collected, researchers can watch customers interact in their environment.

Some data can only be observed

Some information, such as people's eye movements when visiting a shop or how people behave in a group, is not something researchers can collect with a questionnaire. The subjects themselves may not be aware of their own behaviour. The only way to collect such data is through observation.

Remove biases

People's answers can be biased due to their desire to impress others or the question's wording. Observing customer behaviour will eliminate these biases and give the researcher more accurate data.

Remove sampling errors

Other research approaches, such as surveys or experiments, involve collecting data from a sample.

Sampling saves time and money, but there's a lot of room for errors as individuals in the same group can differ significantly in certain aspects. With observational research, there is no sampling, and thus researchers can avoid sampling errors.

Disadvantages of Observational Research

There are two significant drawbacks to observational research:

Some data are not observable

Researchers cannot observe data such as customers' beliefs, motivation, and awareness via actions or situations. Thus, observational research may not be the best approach to studying what people think about a business.

Learn about survey methods to collect data on customers' attitudes and motivation.

Time-consuming

In some observational studies, researchers can't control the environment. That means they have to wait patiently for the customer to perform a task and collect data, resulting in a lot of dead time due to inactivity.

Observational Research Design

The observational research design process is composed of six steps:

The first three steps answer the questions - Who? Why? How?

  1. Who is the subject of the research?

  2. Why is the research carried out?

  3. How is the study conducted?

The last three steps include data collection, organisation, and analysis.

Here is a more detailed breakdown of the process:

Step 1: Identify the research target

This step answers the 'who' question. Who is the target audience? To which customer group do they belong? Is there any information about this target group that the researcher can use to assist the research?

Step 2: Determine the purpose of the research

Once the target group is defined, the next step is to decide on the research's goals and purpose. Why is the research conducted? What problem does it help solve? Is there a hypothesis the study tries to verify?

Step 3: Decide on the method of the research.

After defining 'who' and 'why', researchers need to work on the 'how'. This involves determining the method of observational research.

Reread the previous section to learn more about observational research methods.

Step 4: Observe the subjects

This step is where the actual observation takes place. The researcher can watch their subject in the natural or contrived environment, directly or indirectly, based on the research method.

Step 5: Sort and organise data

During this step, raw data is synthesised and organised to suit the purpose of the research. Any irrelevant information will be left out.

Step 6: Analyse the data collected.

The final step is data analysis. The researcher will assess the data collected to draw conclusions or confirm a hypothesis.

Marketing Observation Examples

There are many observational research examples in market research:

Shop-along

Shop-along happens when the researcher observes a subject's behaviour in a brick-and-mortar store and asks questions about the experience.1

Some examples of questions that the researcher may pose:

  • What placement catches your attention?

  • What distracts you from getting what you want to buy?

  • Does the packaging influence your buying decision?

  • Does the shop's layout make it easy to find what you want?

Observational research example shop along StudySmarterFig. 2 Shop along to observe customer behaviour, Pexels

Eye-tracking or heat map

Another example of observational research is eye-tracking. Eye-tracking refers to using technology to observe the subjects' eye movements to see what draws their attention. On an online platform, heat maps track viewers' eye movements. Heat maps visualise customer data such as website clicks, scrolls, or mouse movements with appealing colours.

Here's an example of what it looks like:

Observational research example eye tracking heat map StudySmarterEye-tracking with heatmap, Macronomy

Utility testing

Utility testing is also a common form of observational research. Here, the researcher will ask the subject to perform a task, then observe and ask for feedback on their experience. This kind of research comes in handy when the researcher wants to identify a problem, an opportunity for their product, or collect data on customer behaviour.2

Observational Research Examples

Here are three famous examples of observational research from different fields:

  1. Jane Goodall's study of chimpanzees: In the 1960s, Jane Goodall conducted a groundbreaking study of chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. Goodall spent years observing the behavior of the chimpanzees in their natural habitat, documenting their social interactions, tool use, and hunting behavior. Her research has had a major impact on our understanding of animal behavior and the evolution of humans.

  2. The Hawthorne studies: The Hawthorne studies were a series of experiments conducted by researchers at Western Electric in the 1920s and 1930s to investigate the effects of different working conditions on employee productivity. The researchers observed workers in a factory setting and made changes to their working conditions, such as adjusting lighting and work hours. The results of the study showed that the mere act of being observed by researchers led to increased productivity, a phenomenon now known as the "Hawthorne effect."

  3. Rosenthal and Jacobson's study of teacher expectations: In the 1960s, researchers Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted a study in which they told teachers that certain students had been identified as "academic bloomers" who were likely to experience significant academic growth. In reality, the students had been selected at random. The researchers observed the students over the course of a school year and found that the students who had been labeled as "bloomers" showed greater academic progress than their peers. This study demonstrated the power of teacher expectations in shaping student performance.

Observational Research - Key Takeaways

  • Observational research gathers primary customer data by observing them in a natural setting.
  • Observational research helps researchers understand how people behave in different situations and which factors influence their decisions.
  • Types of observation methods include: naturalistic and controlled observation, participant and non-participant observation, structured and unstructured observation, and overt and covert observation
  • Observational research allows for more accurate data collection, removing biases and sampling errors. However, it can be time-consuming due to long hours of inactivity.
  • There are six steps to conducting observational research: identifying the target group, determining the research purpose, deciding on the research method, observing the subject, sorting data, and finally analysing data.

References

  1. SIS International Research, Shop-Along Market Research, 2022, https://www.sisinternational.com/solutions/branding-and-customer-research-solutions/shop-along-research.
  2. Kate Moran, Utility Testing 101, 2019.

Frequently Asked Questions about Observational Research

Observational research means gathering primary data by observing people interact in a natural or controlled setting. 

An advantage of the participant observation research method is that it provides more accurate customer data without fewer sampling errors. 

To avoid bias in observational research, the observers should be well-trained and follow procedures that have been established. 

Observational research is a type of research design in which a researcher observes participants in their natural environment without intervening or manipulating variables. It involves watching and taking notes on behavior, actions, and interactions and can be used to gather information on attitudes, beliefs, and habits.

Observation is important to research as it allows researchers to understand why customers behave the way they do and what factors influence their decisions. 

Observation in market research is the process of watching and recording consumers' behaviors, actions, and interactions with products or services in a natural or controlled environment. It is used to gain insight into how consumers behave in real-life situations and inform decisions about product design, packaging, and marketing strategies.

Yes, observational studies are a type of primary research. Primary research is defined as research that is conducted directly by the researcher to gather original data, rather than relying on existing data sources. Observational studies involve the direct observation of a phenomenon or behavior in a natural or controlled setting, and are therefore a form of primary research.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Direct observation happens when researchers watch the subject perform a task or ask them direct questions.

The type of research where the researcher observes the subject interacting in their everyday situations, such as in an office or home is called _____________.

Some customer data can only be observed through observational research. 

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