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Observational Research: Data Collection Advantages and Disadvantages

Observational ResearchObservational research — sometimes called field research — is a form of non-experimental research designed to watch (i.e. observe) behavior as it organically and spontaneously unfolds in a natural environment.

While observational research has been used for decades in a variety of disciplines, such as sociology, psychology, cultural studies and more, in the context of market research it is used to help businesses glean valuable insights about their customers and marketplace. For example, a business may discreetly observe how customers behave in a car dealership, focusing on aspects such as where they go and the routes they take, how much time they invest, body language, and so on.  

Advantages of Observational Research

The biggest advantage of observational research has already been noted: it enables businesses to observe potential customers in a natural setting, which can reveal penetrating insights unavailable through other methods such as focus groups and surveys. This is especially the case when research participants have a conscious or unconscious bias towards presenting their “best self” to a researcher.

For example, focus group participants may claim (and even believe the claim when they make it) that when they visit a car dealership, they are “immune” from any form of sales pressure and start browsing floor models without paying any attention to sales people. However, observational research may reveal that the majority of customers — even those who plan on being “immune” — will nevertheless respond to a salesperson’s invitation to engage (i.e. customers may truly want to be left alone, but they will not insist on this if it means breaching the basic norms of social etiquette). Based on this insight, dealerships that want to minimize the number of customers who walk in/out without engaging a salesperson may choose to place floor models further away from the entrance or deploy staff close to the entrance.

Another key advantage of observational research is that researchers can modify their vantage point based on real-time variables. For example, if their view is obstructed by crowds or other barriers, they can simply move to a better location.

Disadvantages of Observational Research

Unlike structured focus groups (i.e. even “spontaneous and informal” focus groups are structured, just in a different way!), the inherent organic nature of observational research means that researchers have little control over the environment. As such, the insights that are ultimately gleaned may not be justified by the time and cost investment.

Additionally, unless the research is designed and carried out by experts, there is a high potential for subjective bias. For example, a researcher may unconsciously “want” to see that customers are open and agreeable to being engaged by retail staff while they are shopping and may therefore misinterpret smiles of politeness (or even nervousness) as signs of approval. As such, using other qualitative data gathering methods to control and eliminate bias is essential.

Check out this article from our colleagues at Remesh comparing online focus groups to traditional ones for more information!

Learn More

To learn more about observational research and how it can help you obtain profitable intelligence regarding your customers and marketplace, contact the Communications For Research team today. Our co-CEO Colson Steber can assist you in determining whether observational research is the right methodology to reach your business goals.

For more information on how to communicate the value of market research to your clients, download our FREE eBook today: 

Communicating the Value of Market Research


Topics: data collection , observational research

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