Observational research is a type of qualitative research methodology that relies on the observation and analysis of behavior in the “real world.” You may understand it as a method of collecting primary data in which the researcher observes how people interact in a natural setting.
For instance, an observational study may involve observing shoppers at a grocery store to gain insight into consumer behavior. As a researcher, you would note their movements, products purchased, conversations with employees and other shoppers, and other relevant information.
This research method is not experimental, but it is valuable for revealing hard-to-measure trends. It can be applied to understanding human reactions and motivations in specific situations or environments and identifying potential areas for improvement or growth opportunities.
What is Observational Research?
Observational research is defined as a process of doing market research by observing participants and phenomena in their natural settings. Observational research methods allow researchers to witness how subjects react to situations and make choices in real-life settings, rather than in controlled environments like research labs or focus groups.
Observational research allows researchers to observe the real-life behavior of their subjects under various options or circumstances. Unlike experimental research, it is non-manipulative, which means variables are not controlled. The results of this type of research include both qualitative and quantitative methods. To understand what is observational research better, let’s explore some of the key examples of observational study –
Observational Research Examples
There are many examples of conducting observational research in different scenarios such as –
These involve accompanying customers during their shopping trips to observe how they make decisions in the store environment. Shop-along is a research method where the researcher watches how a person behaves in a physical store and inquires about their experience. The researcher may ask the following questions:
- Which option stands out to you?
- What causes distractions when you want to buy something?
- Does the packaging have an impact on your buying decision?
- Is it easy to find what you want because of the shop’s layout?
2) Street intercept surveys
Street intercept surveys are conducted in public places, often on the street, by stopping passersby to ask quick survey questions. These surveys provide researchers with immediate feedback on products or services. Sample questions might include:
- How often do you purchase this product?
- What would motivate you to switch brands?
- Would you refer this product/service to your friends and family?
3) Eye-tracking or heat map
Observational research can also utilize technology such as eye-tracking. This method involves observing a subject’s eye movements to determine what they find interesting or compelling.
For example, online platforms can use heat maps to track where viewers are focusing their eyes. Heat maps use different colors to illustrate customer data such as clicks, scrolls, and mouse movements.
4) Usability testing
Usability testing is a type of research where a user’s experience with a product or system is observed and measured. The focus is on how user-friendly the product or system is, and whether the user has a positive experience. To assess usability, researchers watch how actual users interact with a product or system and may ask questions during the process. Some of the questions that can help in this process are-
- What was your first impression of the product?
- Was it easy to understand how to use the product?
- Do you think the product will help you achieve your goals?
5) Ethnographic research
To conduct ethnographic research, researchers observe individuals in their usual setting without any preconceived questions or prompts, simply recording their observations.
The objective of this research is to obtain a more profound comprehension of human behavior in various settings and the factors that drive their decision-making process.
Types of Observational Research Methods
When you plan to conduct observational research, the following observational methods may come into play –
1) Naturalistic observation
Naturalistic observation involves observing a phenomenon directly in its natural environment, without the researcher interfering or interacting with participants. When researchers observe participants, they try to be as unobtrusive as possible.
2) Participant observation
Participant observation is a research method where the researcher engages actively in the study. Aside from just observing behaviors, the researcher may also carry out interviews, take notes, examine documents, and capture photographs to do effective data collection and data analysis.
3) Structured observation
In structured observation, researchers observe behaviors in a lab or simulated environment rather than in a natural setting. This technique focuses on a limited set of behaviors, making it less natural but reducing the number of variables in play.
4) Controlled observation
In psychology, controlled observations are structured observations that are conducted in a laboratory setting or in a controlled setting. The researcher has a specific question they want to answer and they control multiple variables such as the participants, location, time, and other circumstances surrounding the research.
What are the steps of Observational Research Design
Conducting observational studies involves the following steps –
Step 1 – Identify the research target
The purpose of this step is to identify the target audience. Which customer group is being targeted? Is there any useful information about this audience that can aid in the research? – All in all, this step is used for getting all the answers to “Who” questions.
Step 2 – Determine the purpose of the research
After defining the target group, the next step is to establish the goals and objectives of the research. The purpose of the research should be clear, along with the problem it intends to address and any hypothesis it aims to test. It will give an idea about “Why” the research is being conducted.
Step 3 – Decide on the method of the research.
Researchers should focus on determining the method of observational research once they have defined ‘who’ and ‘why’. This is an important step in the research process. It will guide you about “How” the research process should be implemented.
Step 4 – Observe the subjects
This step involves observing the subject in either a natural or controlled environment, either directly or indirectly depending on the chosen research method.
Step 5 – Sort and organize data
At this stage, the raw data will be condensed and arranged to fit the research goal, with any unnecessary information removed.
Step 6 – Analyse the data collected.
The last step involves analyzing the data. The researcher will carefully examine the collected data to either support a hypothesis or draw conclusions.
When should you use observational research?
You should use this type of market research in the following situations –
- If you believe that the participants may not provide honest answers for their data, you will need to find a different way to obtain the information.
- To clarify a research question, it is necessary to comprehend either the how or the what aspect.
- To effectively explain consumer behavior on this new topic, it is necessary to have strong and thorough data.
- If observing behavior in a natural setting is crucial for your research question.
- If observing behavior in a specific environment is important to your research inquiry.
- If you are worried that unintentional discrepancies may exist between self-reported data and actual behaviors.
- If you require additional details regarding a specific research question to create a more comprehensive and precise survey. Language: English
Strengths and Weaknesses of Observational Research
The observational method is advantageous in market research because it captures people’s actual purchases rather than relying on their reported intentions or past behavior, making it less theoretical.
This method enables researchers to witness how individuals respond to real-life displays and pricing options rather than relying on predictions based on surveys or focus groups.
There are some limitations to the observation method due to human bias. Observers are subjective and bring their own biases to the process. Additionally, it is impossible to determine the subject’s thoughts, mindset, or decision-making process.
Observational Research Advantages
1) More accurate insights
If customers don’t remember their actions or do something different from what they report, the collected data can be inaccurate and lead to incorrect conclusions. To increase data reliability, researchers can observe customers in their natural settings.
2) Some data can only be observed
Researchers cannot obtain certain information, such as how people move their eyes when visiting a shop or behave in a group, through a questionnaire as the subjects may not be conscious of their behavior. Observation is the only method to acquire such data.
3) Remove biases
To obtain more accurate data, researchers should observe customer behavior instead of relying solely on people’s answers, as these answers can be influenced by a desire to impress or unclear wording of the questions.
4) Remove sampling errors
Surveys or experiments are kinds of research methods that involve gathering data from a subset of the population, unlike other methods that may use different techniques.
Observational Research Disadvantages
1) Some data are not observable
Observational research may not be the most effective method for studying people’s beliefs, motivation, and awareness regarding a business because such data cannot be directly observed through actions or situations.
Researchers face challenges in controlling the environment in certain observational studies, so they must wait for customers to perform tasks and gather data, resulting in periods of inactivity.
Experiments vs. Observations
Experiments are different from observations because experiments involve changing a variable on purpose to see how it affects another, whereas observational research involves watching things happen in a natural setting to see how something affects them.
Controlled environments are usually used for experiments, where the researcher has control over the influencing factors. On the other hand, observational research takes place in natural settings, where the behavior is observed without any interference. As a result, all variables cannot be controlled by the researchers.
Uses for observational research
The purpose of the observational study is to gather information regarding people’s actions and speech. Observational studies are valuable in any field where researchers wish to comprehend human behavior and actions in their genuine setting. Observational studies are used in market research to understand the needs and problems of potential consumers. For instance, in medical settings, observers may study how patients cope with a specific treatment or interact with healthcare professionals in certain situations.
Observational data is beneficial in many fields such as
- Market research
- Consumer behavior
- Sports analytics
- User research, etc
Observational research is a useful approach to studying customer behavior in a natural setting and gaining valuable insights that other methods cannot provide. This type of research enables researchers to collect data with precision and effectiveness, which aids in comprehending customer requirements.
To sum up, using observational research can be very helpful to comprehend how individuals engage with a product or service in actual situations.
Observational research using modern technology provides valuable information to inform product and service improvements that cannot be obtained through traditional methods. It is also becoming more accessible and easier to conduct.
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