Qualitative Research – why Observation is hard to do
One of the best ways to a deeper understanding of your customers is to watch and listen to them whenever you can. Observation and listening are powerful but often underutilised qualitative research tools of the marketer.
It is, therefore, disappointing that so many companies run to conduct market research, usually a qualitative research or study, as a first step to improved customer understanding. They then (hopefully) invite relevant employees from marketing, sales, packaging, communications or R&D to participate. However, this intense but short observation is likely to do more harm than good. Let me explain.
Have you ever gone to watch a focus group only to discover that the research confirms your hypotheses? You are then irritated that you “wasted” money on the project aren’t you? Well, this may be due to selective listening and interpretation on your part. You watched and listened only to the topics that interested you. You were looking for confirmation of your hypothesis. There was so much more you could have understood if only you knew how to listen.
True understanding comes from regular interaction with your customers, not just from an annual observation or two. Here are some ideas on how to do this effectively.
QUALITATIVE RESEARCH IS EVERYONE’S JOB
There are a wealth of opportunities for every employee in a company to come into contact with the customer. In a customer-centric organisation, everyone has annual objectives which include connecting with customers on a regular basis. This could be by listening to calls at the care centre, reading blogs and message boards, or participating in / watching promotions, demonstrations, sampling or market research.
Some organisations also make a habit of getting their employees to watch and listen to their customers in direct observation or connection sessions. However, this needs to be managed carefully in order to avoid people jumping too quickly to incorrect conclusions, as detailed below.
QUALITATIVE RESEARCH IS NOT AS EASY AS IT LOOKS
There is a very well-known example of the challenge of observation in a qualitative research setting. In a video showing two teams of young people passing a couple of balls around. If you haven’t seen it you can check out the Awareness Test and try it for yourself.
In the exercise, people are asked to count the number of passes made by the team in white, so that is what the observer will concentrate on. In the background a man dressed as a bear, moon-walks his way across the screen, but most people are oblivious to the fact. They are so busy looking for the answer to the question, that they miss this significant event in the short video.
The same can happen when people watch customers in a qualitative research. They are so concentrated on finding the answer to their question, or worse the substantiation of their own beliefs, that they miss a lot of what is actually going on. If they listen objectively, they may hear something new. And this might lead them to a significant breakthrough in understanding.
For this reason, it is essential to run a careful briefing session before every observation exercise. This way people go into it with their eyes and brains fully open. Your Insight team can manage this in most cases, but to summarise what needs to be covered, I have listed below the five rules of observation.
THE FIVE RULES OF QUALITATIVE RESEARCH
ONE – ORDINARY
Look for the ordinary not the extraordinary, but do note the things that surprise. These can challenge our preconceptions and help us to keep an open mind. Identify also the details of the ordinary event, things that were never noticed or thought about before.
You may see people finding ways to get around a problem or pain point they have. These may offer opportunities to increase satisfaction, either by resolving them or by developing a new product or service.
TWO – ATTENTIVE
Be careful to record only what you see and hear. Don’t start analysing what you think is going on or you will certainly miss something.
If you are running observation sessions yourself, it is important to define roles for every company participant. One person should lead the session, one could take notes and one can actively observe and perhaps take pictures. With these different roles covered, the discussion after the event will be much richer.
THREE – ACCURATE & OBJECTIVE
This is the reason why you need to remain attentive, so you get an accurate record of what is happening. Keep notes of what your see, when and where, and how people behave.
If you have direct contact with customers, leave your own preconceptions outside and never judge what is going on.
It is also important not to react openly to what you see or hear. Pay particular attention to your body language. Keep asking (yourself, at least at first) why? Even if something appears obvious, the reason may not be what you think it is. So keep asking this vital question.
This form of iterative investigating is often referred to as the ” Five Whys“. The technique involves asking the question a minimum of five times to ensure you cover every angle.
FOUR – TIMING
Observe and understand what is going on before and after the event, as well as during the event you are observing itself. The event needs to be put into the context of time and place within a person’s lifestyle and habits. This is the only way to understand its relevance.
Also, be patient as people often change behaviour when being watched, at least to start with. Give them a chance to relax and feel comfortable with being observed. Insight colleagues will certainly have mentioned at some point that in qualitative projects, the best comments come out at the end. (>>Tweet this<<) Participants think the recording is finished and so relax and completely open up!
FIVE – DEBRIEF & ANALYSIS
Observation is most valuable if it is completed by an immediate debriefing session. Observers can together share, ask questions and start to analyse what they have seen and heard.
This is important if several groups have been following similar events such as shopping, leisure-time activities or food preparation, but with different respondents.
These five points should ensure that everyone enjoys participating in these observations. Both you and your customers will benefit from the experience and a maximum number of ideas and learnings will be gathered.
One last point for International organisations; be aware of cultural differences. Explore and understand the culture where the observations are being made, especially if you are not a local. What is appropriate in one culture may be offensive or irrelevant in another.
Checking things out with the locals before going into the field can save a lot of embarrassment – or worse! It is also useful to have local members help in the analysis of what was seen and heard so that the correct interpretation is made.
With those 5 tips in mind, the next Qualitative Research and Observation will be much more insightful!