Observational Research Techniques

Direct observation, if carried out in a structured and disciplined way is one of the purest forms on research, as it taps directly into behaviour, rather than perceptions, secondary or self-reports of behaviour. It avoids many sources of error.


Observation forms another class of techniques that are particularly well suited to the Asian market. Structured observational techniques usually involve trained researchers using structured checklists to observe behaviour in a natural setting.

To keep the setting as natural as possible, the researcher usually blends in with the environment. In the Mystery Shopper or Mystery Customer technique for example, a researcher would act as a shopper, able to rate for example customer service behaviour in a bank, store cleanliness in a shop chain, flight service of an airline, and reactions of other customers.

Samples vs Signs

Observational techniques use SAMPLES of behaviour rather than SIGNS of behaviour:

Let's use an example...

If you run a hotel chain and use the ubiquitous evaluation forms, you know that 90% of the time you get specific complaints or fuzzy ratings that provide little real pragmatic data. This is not real market research at all. Just merely a "complaints form".

Similarly asking a typist to sit a typing test gives you a SAMPLE of their behaviour, which is far better than a SIGN of their behaviour such as references and self-reported proficiency. Many managers are dismayed when they employ new managers with prestigious management degrees and glowing references, to find that their actual work or behaviour is not what they expected. The problem? They used a SIGN of behaviour rather than a SAMPLE of behaviour. When you buy from an artist, you usually want to see a SAMPLE of their work, not hear about the number of awards they have won, which is a SIGN of how well they paint a picture.

Observational research on the other hand focuses on observed behaviour or attributes of products or services, usually comparing several samples (flights, food outlets, shopping center patrons, computer users etc)

Structure and Sampling

Observational Research utilizes structured forms and checklists:

However if you use trained observers using a structured form to measure critical staff behaviour such as the time it takes them to respond to a query, pick up the phone, the manner and words they use in addressing guests, the appearance of a room, the presentation of restaurant meals and quality of food, you actually observe real SAMPLES of the product, service or behaviour. This reduces some common forms of research error. Objective observation, expecially from observers that have had an opportunity to compare cases using an objective structured method (eg: observations in several fast food chain oulets, observation of several flight sectors for an airline company, observations of several different airlines), provides a far more realistic data set.

Just observing without any guide is little better than informal observation. OPC builds observational checklists according to accepted principles for checklist development and experience with other clients. These are developed hand in hand with you, concentrating on the specific behaviours and product/service attributes to be focused on. We develop a schedule for sampling and train up the observational teams and pre-test the forms and checklist.

The advantage of direct observation

The great advantage of observational techniques is that we can observe directly the behaviour of customers, rather than self reported behaviour. This removes one of the major causes of error in market research - memory loss, poor recall, and perceptions affected by experiences after the original experience. It also reduces error due to translation, and provides a richer dataset that includes non-verbal and physical behaviour. Just like in other regions, what is said is very often different from what is actually done - for a variety of reasons.

Though generally more expensive, observational techniques are often of higher value than the cheaper self report methods, simply because they focus on actual behaviour. It is best used in assessing customer service, case study research, or situations where gathering detailed information on beahviour is critical.

Specific types of observational research methodologies include mystery shopping or mystery customer surveys, and the disposable camera methodology.

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