You can observe a lot just by watching”  — Yogi Berra

Observational research (or “watching people do stuff”) is one of my favorite things to do.  Not surprisingly, since I describe myself as a “constantly curious learner”, someone truly fascinated by humans and human behavior.  Observational research can also be quite powerful as a tool to uncover deep insights for many companies.

The challenge I find is that many clients (and researchers!) don’t appear to understand the value of this approach.  Often, it is difficult to interpret what is being seen—it may require new or reinforced skills to observe, absorb and reflect on those experiences.   As a quick primer, here are a few thoughts…

  • Observation is about the ordinary. The real stuff that happens every day can become new with fresh eyes.
  • Details matter. Take good notes on what people do, how often, with whom. Watch their body language. Listen for any commentary.
  • Look for the patterns. What happens regularly and what causes it? Who are the outliers and what was different for them?
  • Consider the broader context. The activity being observed is part of a larger set of behaviors that happen both before and after.
  • Leave space. Observing the key research issues/behaviors is important, but allowing for new insights is key.

Observational research is just one of many qualitative research techniques.  Often, the most powerful insights come from understanding what people do AND what people say.  Consider combining observational research with more traditional methods for your next project.