Observation is one of the original guiding principles for scientific inquiry. It is essential for collecting data, forming hypotheses and testing theories. But how do you know when to observe and when to actually start asking questions? For market researchers, it can be a difficult choice. Here’s what you need to know:
Observational research is a data collection technique that relies on both the direct and indirect gathering of information about a subject. In the world of market research, it’s the process by which businesses collect empirical data on consumers. It can be facilitated one of three ways: by human observation, through online tracking or via a remote device. For instance, in addition to literally watching consumers as they shop, many businesses now monitor online consumer behavior using web metrics. Some even install cameras to record consumer behavior in the real world so that an actual researcher doesn’t have to do it in person. Observation is important because it helps negate many types of bias and much of the subjective interpretation that comes with people self-reporting “facts.” Basic psychology reveals that people remember and relay things in different ways. We all forget and/or embellish our narratives, catering to our audience and adding or eliminating details based on when and where and to whom we’re speaking. This makes it difficult to get truly accurate and honest information. Observational research, however, allows us to see what people do, not just hear about it. Researchers can witness a subject’s natural behavior without having to interpret intent or having to always rely on explicit consent or buy-in from subjects in order to garner results. Finally, it limits some types of research biases, such as those stemming from a subject’s misunderstanding of research questions, as well as their aforementioned inability to give fully objective feedback (i.e., error recall).
When to Use Surveys Instead
While observation is a great tool, it does have its disadvantages. It’s frequently time-consuming and expensive to perform (especially when real people are needed to facilitate real-time observation); researchers could inadvertently misinterpret something they see and/or why it happened; it’s limited to isolated events and products that already exist; and it requires the active participation of respondents. It’s also not very practical for the gathering of large data sets because researchers usually only have access to a limited number of people to observe at one time. Thus, for companies needing more information more quickly, surveys are usually more sensible and generally more affordable. But perhaps their biggest advantage is this: that they help companies understand why consumers act in a certain way, not just that they do. Observational research can’t reveal intent, and when businesses need to link cause and effect to any one behavior, talking with actual consumers is the only feasible way for them to get answers.
Ready to Learn More?
Taking a step back and watching consumers is a necessary part of the market research process, but reaching out to them is critical, too. If you need help knowing whether you should observe vs. survey your customers, contact our team at Communications for Research (CFR). Feel free to also download our free video, “Avoiding the 5 Most Common Market Research Mistakes" for additional tips on getting the most out of your market research endeavor.