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Qualitative Research Methods : Observation

    Qualitative Research Methods

    Typical qualitative methods include behavioral observation, in-depth interviews, focus groups, and social listening. Each of these methods is described below.


    Observation may be the oldest method of primary research. Since the beginning of commerce, merchants have been watching their customers and non-customers engage in a variety of behaviors. Examples include information-gathering, shopping, purchasing, product returns, complaints, and so forth. Observation can be as simple as a local fast-food restaurant manager watching the expression on customers’ faces as they eat a new sandwich.

    More formal observation techniques are also employed. Researchers might record observations in a prescribed way for later analysis and reference. Video cameras, audio systems, movement tracking, biofeedback, and other technologies may be used to observe and capture information about consumers. Some observational techniques can be quite intrusive. For instance, a researcher might enter a consumer’s home and conduct an audit to take an inventory of products found. Ethnographic research requires that the researcher practically move in with the consumer to observe and record various relevant behaviors.

    Observation may be the only way to capture some types of information, such as how consumers actually behave or use a product. It can provide important research insights, especially if consistent patterns are identified.

    A great example of observational research is the way technology company Google works to ensure that its search-engine product functions well in every market in which it operates. One of its major markets is China. In Chinese, though, the alphabet has a much more extensive character set than English does, which makes it difficult for Chinese users to get helpful research results. Google researchers observed and video-recorded Chinese people using search engines to help them understand exactly what, when, and why problems occurred. The company used this information to develop potential solutions such as “Google Suggest,” which auto-fills search suggestions so people don’t have to type in the full search query. The research also led to Google’s “Did You Mean?” feature, which asks users if they meant to type in a different, more popular, standardized, or spell-checked search query. Experimenting with and adding these sorts of features helped the company create a much more useful product for the Chinese market. Google has also added improvements with broad appeal to its standard search-engine product in other markets.[1]

    Depending on the approach, observation can be relatively inexpensive and quick. More sophisticated observational research can be significantly more expensive, but it can also offer unique insights that marketers might otherwise miss.

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