Seven rules for observational research: how to watch people do stuff Observational research, ethnography, or, in plain English, watching people do stuff, seems to be hot these days. Newsweek touts it ("Enough Talk," August 18, 1997), which means it's getting to be mainstream, but I find that a lot of clients aren't very comfortable with it.
Certainly, compared to traditional focus groups, mini-groups, or one-on-one interviews, observational research accounts for a pitiably small portion of most research budgets. Yogi Berra's famous line that "You can observe a lot just by watching" is widely acknowledged, but observation remains the most under-utilized qualitative technique in marketing research.
One of the reasons seems to be that many clients (and researchers) just don't know how to get value out of watching. Nothing sours people on a good approach more permanently than a few "interesting but useless" projects.
Learning from watching is, in fact, hard.
If you ask a not-very-deep question in a focus group, you still may get a deep and revealing answer. But if you don't know how to think about what you'll see when you watch normal people doing stuff, you won't learn much from it. And in observational research, as in all qualitative research, it's the "thinking about" that's the key.
Since observation skills don't get sharpened up in real life the way questioning skills do, you need to train yourself to see, learn, and think when you watch people do stuff. It takes some practice, and some discipline. I don't pretend to have mastered the art, but I've learned some techniques that will help. So here are my "Seven Rules for Observational Research." Look for the ordinary, not the extraordinary Remember the qualitative project when the lady in the third seat on the right side of the...