Pioneered by anthropologists, observation is a technique for understanding human behaviours, perceptions and emotions as they occur. In marketing applications researchers usually observe consumers during shopping trips or at their homes, with the intent to understand shopping dynamics, in-home product usage and ethnography.

A step beyond plain observation, ethnography involves participating in people’s lives, such as by living in their community for a period of time (a week or more).

Observation research is still largely conducted in-person, though this is both expensive as well as intrusive.  While it is feasible to install and maintain video cameras in-store, securing retailer cooperation is often a challenge, and privacy laws need to be taken into consideration. The in-home environment is less complicated, and it is usually convenient to video record participants as they use products, or undertake tasks of interest to the researcher.

With a view to saving costs, researchers, in future, will increasingly rely on user-generated media for recording observations. This is facilitated by the proliferation of mobile recording devices that make it feasible for participants to produce their own video or audio recording of activities. Alternatively participants are asked to maintain online journals or blogs where they write details about the activities and experiences relevant to the research. Considering that individual preferences do vary, qual platforms should support a wide range of media types including text, image, video and audio content.

A key development that is vastly expanding the scope of observation based qualitative research is the adoption of biometrics. Devices such as EEG (electroencephalogram) and GSR (galvanic skin response) are increasingly used by analysts to observe consumers’ physiological characteristics, and techniques like eye tracking and facial coding are used to observe behavioural characteristics.

These technologies that unobtrusively track consumers’ responses are providing valuable insights in fields such as advertising, packaging and product development. They are cover in detail in Chapter Biometrics.

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