A wide ranging set of research techniques aimed at observing consumers interacting naturally with their surroundings including products and services in use. A key advantage of observation research is that often the respondant or consumer is unaware that they are being observed, allowing thir behaviour to be observed naturally.
Focus groups, interviews, intercepts, and questionnaire surveys generally elicit secondary accounts of product use. Such "self report" data is subject to many sources of error, including memory effects, and the unconcious motivations of respondents to tell the interviewer what they think the interviewer wants to hear (or in some cases what the interviewer does not want to hear!)
Direct observation can reduce or negate much of this error, by relying on pure observed consumer behaviour rather than secondary accounts of that behaviour.
One example is the videotaping of shoppers in shops, where a structured checklist is used to record behaviour such as directions that a shopper takes, browsing behaviour, attention to Point of Sale (POS) promotions etc. Another is the tracking of eye movements by computer software as a subject browses a newspaper or screen of information.
Popular forms of observational research include the mystery shopper or mystery customer technique to test quality of the consumer experience or quality of customer service. Others included the disposable camera technique, where respondents are asked to take snapshots of their friends behaving naturally interacting with products being researched.
Only creativity limits the types of observational technqiues than can be used to better understand consumer behaviour in a certain product class or with a certain product or service. When the focus need to be on actual behaviour, rather than perceptions or understanding more complex consumer decision making processes, observational techniques really demonstrate their reliability and validity.
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