What is Observational Research?

Watch what I do, not what I say, could be a good lead-in for Observational Research. People in focus groups or in surveys may say one thing such as, “I always buy green apples” but perhaps when observed they buy the less costly apples, or the freshest looking apples. Observational research allows the researcher to see what their subjects really do when confronted with various choices or situations.

The term refers to the study of non-experimental situations in which behavior is observed and recorded. It could also be termed, “what’s going on or what’s she doing.” The research is classified as non-experimental because the variables are neither controlled nor manipulated. The results are both qualitative and quantitative in nature.

The different types of Observational Research

There are different types of observational research and they have their strengths and weaknesses. The technique is used in marketing and the social sciences. As stated earlier variables are not created or manipulated. In natural observational research the researcher is simply recording what they are seeing in front of them. What their subjects are doing and how they are interacting. This could be observing animals in the wild from behind blind, shoppers in a grocery store, students in a classroom or soldiers on the battlefield.  Another type is participant observation where the researcher is involved and interacting with the subjects by asking questions (usually unstructured) taking notes, photographs, drawings and other record-keeping tasks. Case studies and archival research are two other forms of observational research. Case studies usually involve a more in-depth study of an individual, group or event and can be natural or participatory. Archival is the observation of previous data that has been collected and analyzed often for another purpose.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Observational Research

The strengths of the observational method in market research is that it is less hypothetical since it captures what people are purchasing as opposed to what they say they will do or have done. It also allows the researchers to observe people’s behavior when confronted with actual displays, price choices rather than predict their behaviour based on survey or focus group answers. Some of the weaknesses are human bias since the observer is a human with their own bias. Also, one cannot know what the subject is thinking, their mid-set or decision-making process. For example, did they choose something because they were just in a hurry, did they actually see that display, was cost not a factor because they are very wealthy. Desired demographics may be difficult to achieve.

Qualitative and mixed methods software like QDA Miner and a Text Mining Tool like WordStat can help organize and analyze observational research. The software allows to merge many observational studies on the same subject, code and quantify those observations. WordStat’s text mining capabilities help to explore large amounts of archival research.


S.J. Grove, R.P. Fisk-Journal of Academy Marketing Science 1992. Observation data collection methods for services marketing. An overview

Price, R. Jhangiani, I. Chant, A. Chiang, D.C. Leighton, C. Cutlet Research methods in Psychology. 2017. Chapter 6.5 Observational research