Some researchers call self-reported research the Achillie’s heal of survey data collection in terms of reliability.
The reason? Self-reported research is sometimes inaccurate and thwarted by a consumer’s misguided perception.
For example, research states that some polls reported that 40% of Americans attended church every week. However, when Marlar and Hadaway (2005) examined actual church attendance records, they found the actual percentage was closer to fewer than 22% attendance every week. This is a prime example of self-reporting gone wrong.
Additionally, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz found that sometimes survey respondents outright lie about their perceptions on sensitive topics to present a better view of themselves.
If the reliability of survey research comes into question, and market researchers need accurate data to inform marketing, product, and business decisions, what is the solution?
The answer? Observational research.
This article will dive deeper into what observational research is, when you should use it, and what the three types of observational research are.
What is Observational Research?
Observation research is a qualitative research technique where researchers observe participants’ ongoing behavior in a natural situation.
Depending on the type of observation research and the goal of the study, the market researcher will have varying levels of participation in the study. Sometimes the researcher will insert themselves into the environment, and other times, the researcher will not intervene in the setting and observe from a distance or in a laboratory setting.
The purpose of this type of research is to gather more reliable insights. In other words, researchers can capture data on what participants do as opposed to what they say they do.
When should a market researcher use observational research?
As a market researcher, you have several different research methodologies at your disposal, including surveys, interviews, observations, etc.
Using observational data is best when one of the following situations apply:
- You need to gather sensitive information, and you don’t trust your participants will be honest with their self-reporting.
- You need to understand the how or what of a research question.
- The topic is new, and you need robust data to explain consumer behavior.
- When behavior in a natural setting is vital to your research question.
- When behavior in a controlled setting is critical to your research question.
- If you are concerned that self-reported data about behaviors will differ from actual actions, even if it’s unintentional.
- When you need more information about a specific research question to formulate a more complete and accurate survey.
If any of these situations describe you or your current research state, then an observational study may be just what you need.
What are the three types of observational research?
When it comes to observational research, you have three different types of methodologies: controlled observations, naturalistic observations, and participant observations.
Let’s quickly look at what each type of observation includes, how they differ, and the strengths and weaknesses of each type of observation.
1. Controlled observation
Controlled observations are typically a structured observation that takes place in a psych lab. The researcher has a question in mind and controls many of the variables, including participants, observation location, time of the study, circumstances surrounding the research, and more.
During this type of study, the researcher will often create codes that represent different types of behaviors. That way, instead of writing a detailed report, they can classify behavior into different categories and analyze the data with more ease.
Advantages and limitations of controlled observation
The advantages of controlled observation include:
- You can make an observation schedule for your sampling, and have other market researchers use the same codes if they replicate the study. This helps test for reliability.
- The coded data is easy to analyze and quantify.
- Controlled studies aren’t as time-consuming.
Limitations of a controlled observation include:
- It may be challenging to determine the validity of the study if participants know they are being watched.
2. Naturalistic observation
Naturalistic observation is another type of observation research method used by market researchers. This type of observation is when market researchers study the behaviors of participants in a natural surrounding. There are typically no predetermined behavioral codes. Instead, the researcher will take rigorous notes and code the data later.
Advantages and limitations of naturalistic observation
Some advantages of naturalistic observation include:
- The study ensures validity when participants are in their natural setting.
- This type of study can generate new ideas and research questions.
- It opens researchers’ minds to possibilities they might not have considered before.
- Researchers can collect authentic data and avoid any potential problems with self-reported data.
Some limitations include:
- You can’t control different variables, making it difficult to replicate the study and test for reliability.
- It may be challenging to conduct this type of study on a wide scale.
- You have to use skilled researchers, so you don’t risk missing critical behavioral data.
- You aren’t able to manipulate any variables.
3. Participant observation
The last type of observation method is participant observation. This is a type of naturalistic observation in the fact that market researchers will observe participants in their natural habitat. The difference is market researchers will insert themselves into the environment.
Advantages and limitations of participant observation
Some advantages of this type of observation include:
- You can control some of the variables by being part of the natural environment.
- You can still observe participants in their natural habitat, even if they know you are part of the study.
- You can avoid incorrect self-reported data through this method of observation as well.
Here are some limitations to this type of study to consider:
- It can be challenging to take notes openly without blowing your cover as the market researcher.
- If you can’t take notes openly, you’ll have to rely on memory for note-taking, and memory can be faulty.
- If a researcher becomes too involved in the study, they could become less objective. This could threaten the validity of the study.
Each type of study will help you gather insight into how customers and participants behave, but they also come with their own set of limitations.
If you are looking to conduct a reliable study and answer your research question more robustly, then one of the three types of observation research methods can help.