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Observational Research

Observational Research

Researchers can collect customer data in many ways, from surveys to interviews and experiments. However, not all data can be gathered by asking questions, as customers might not be aware of their actions. This is where observational research comes in. Observational research is a method where the researcher watches people in their natural environment. This form of research helps researchers see how people interact in different situations and which environmental factors influence their behaviour. In this explanation, you will learn all about observational research — How it is conducted, its benefits and drawbacks. Let's dive right in.

Observational Research Definition

Observational research is a primary data collection method where the researcher observes how people interact in a natural setting. The research can directly or indirectly engage the subjects.

Observational research gathers primary customer data by observing them in a natural setting.

Direct vs Indirect observation

Direct observation happens when researchers watch the subject perform a task or ask them direct questions. For example, in a study of young children's behaviour, researchers observe them interacting with other children on a playground. In contrast, indirect observation studies the results of an action. For example, the number of likes or views on a video helps researchers determine what type of content appeals to customers.

Any data can become observational, including text, numbers, videos, and images. By collecting and analysing observational data, the researcher can determine how customers behave in a particular situation and which factors influence their decisions. Observational research can sometimes help describe a phenomenon.

One common type of observational research is ethnographic observation. This happens when the researcher can observe the subject interacting in everyday situations, such as in an office or home.

To learn more about other primary data collection methods, check out our explanation of primary data collection.

Methods of Observational Research

The methods of observational research are varied, including:

  1. Natural vs contrived research

  2. Disguised vs open research

  3. Direct vs direct research

  4. Structured vs non-structured research

Here's a table summarising these methods:



  • Takes place in a real-life environment.

  • The subject may or may not realise they are being watched.

  • Occurs in a controlled environment such as a lab.

  • The subject behaves normally and is aware of being watched.



  • Observes subjects with hidden cameras.

  • Openly watches subjects interacting in their natural environment.



  • Watching a subject perform a task.

  • Observes the results of an action, e.g. number of likes on Instagram.



  • Clearly define what to observe.

  • Observe everything; look out for the unexpected.

Table 1. Methods of Observational Research, StudySmarter Originals

Advantages and Disadvantages of Observational Research

Observational research helps study behaviour that other types of research could otherwise not observe. However, besides the obvious advantages, this approach has several drawbacks.

Observational research advantages

Observational research comes with many benefits, including:

More accurate insights

The customers may not remember the full detail of their actions or do something different from what they say. In such cases, the information collected can be inaccurate, resulting in wrong conclusions. To improve the reliability of data collected, researchers can watch customers interact in their environment.

Some data can only be observed

Some information, such as people's eye movements when visiting a shop or how people behave in a group, is not something researchers can collect with a questionnaire. The subjects themselves may not be aware of their own behaviour. The only way to collect such data is through observation.

Remove biases

People's answers can be biased due to their desire to impress others or the question's wording. Observing customer behaviour will eliminate these biases and give the researcher more accurate data.

Remove sampling errors

Other research approaches, such as surveys or experiments, involve collecting data from a sample.

A sample is a small group of people representative of a larger group.

Sampling saves time and money, but there's a lot of room for errors as individuals in the same group can differ significantly in certain aspects. With observational research, there is no sampling, and thus researchers can avoid sampling errors.

Observational research disadvantages

There are two significant drawbacks to observational research:

Some data are not observable

Researchers cannot observe data such as customers' beliefs, motivation, and awareness via actions or situations. Thus, observational research may not be the best approach to studying what people think about a business.

Learn about survey methods to collect data on customers' attitudes and motivation.


In some observational studies, researchers can't control the environment. That means they have to wait patiently for the customer to perform a task and collect data, resulting in a lot of dead time due to inactivity.

Observational Research Design

The observational research design process is composed of six steps:

The first three steps answer the questions - Who? Why? How?

  1. Who is the subject of the research?

  2. Why is the research carried out?

  3. How is the study conducted?

The last three steps include data collection, organisation, and analysis.

Here is a more detailed breakdown of the process:

Step 1: Identify the research target

This step answers the 'who' question. Who is the target audience? To which customer group do they belong? Is there any information about this target group that the researcher can use to assist the research?

Step 2: Determine the purpose of the research

Once the target group is defined, the next step is to decide on the research's goals and purpose. Why is the research conducted? What problem does it help solve? Is there a hypothesis the study tries to verify?

Step 3: Decide on the method of the research.

After defining 'who' and 'why', researchers need to work on the 'how'. This involves determining the method of observational research.

Reread the previous section to learn more about observational research methods.

Step 4: Observe the subjects

This step is where the actual observation takes place. The researcher can watch their subject in the natural or contrived environment, directly or indirectly, based on the research method.

Step 5: Sort and organise data

During this step, raw data is synthesised and organised to suit the purpose of the research. Any irrelevant information will be left out.

Step 6: Analyse the data collected.

The final step is data analysis. The researcher will assess the data collected to draw conclusions or confirm a hypothesis.

Observational Research Examples

There are many observational research examples in real-life:


Shop-along happens when the researcher observes a subject's behaviour in a brick-and-mortar store and asks questions about the experience.1

Some examples of questions that the researcher may pose:

  • What placement catches your attention?

  • What distracts you from getting what you want to buy?

  • Does the packaging influence your buying decision?

  • Does the shop's layout make it easy to find what you want?

Observational research example shop along StudySmarterShop along to observe customer behaviour, Pexels

Eye-tracking or heat map

Another example of observational research is eye-tracking. Eye-tracking refers to using technology to observe the subjects' eye movements to see what draws their attention. On an online platform, heat maps track viewers' eye movements. Heat maps visualise customer data such as website clicks, scrolls, or mouse movements with appealing colours.

Here's an example of what it looks like:

Observational research example eye tracking heat map StudySmarterEye-tracking with heatmap, Macronomy

Utility testing

Utility testing is also a common form of observational research. Here, the researcher will ask the subject to perform a task, then observe and ask for feedback on their experience. This kind of research comes in handy when the researcher wants to identify a problem, an opportunity for their product, or collect data on customer behaviour.2

Observational Research - Key takeaways

  • Observational research gathers primary customer data by observing them in a natural setting.
  • Observational research helps researchers understand how people behave in different situations and which factors influence their decisions.
  • Researchers can conduct observational research in a natural or contrived, disguised or open, direct or indirect, structured or non-structured setting.
  • Observational research allows for more accurate data collection, removing biases and sampling errors. However, it can be time-consuming due to long hours of inactivity.
  • There are six steps to conducting observational research, including identifying the target group, determining the research purpose, deciding on the research method, observing the subject, sorting data, and finally analysing data.


  1. SIS International Research, Shop-Along Market Research, 2022, https://www.sisinternational.com/solutions/branding-and-customer-research-solutions/shop-along-research.
  2. Kate Moran, Utility Testing 101, 2019.

Frequently Asked Questions about Observational Research

Observational research means gathering primary data by observing people interact in a natural or controlled setting. 

An advantage of the participant observation research method is that it provides more accurate customer data without fewer sampling errors. 

To avoid bias in observational research, the observers should be well-trained and follow procedures that have been established. 

An observational study is a primary research method that collects qualitative data about the customers. 

Observation is important to research as it allows researchers to understand why customers behave the way they do and what factors influence their decisions. 

Final Observational Research Quiz


Observational research gathers primary data about customers by observing them in their most _____ settings. 

Show answer



Show question


Direct observation happens when researchers watch the subject perform a task or ask them direct questions.

Show answer



Show question


The type of research where the researcher observes the subject interacting in their everyday situations, such as in an office or home is called _____________.

Show answer


ethnographic observation

Show question


Observations of subjects with hidden cameras is an example of __________.

Show answer


Disguised observational research

Show question


Some customer data can only be observed through observational research. 

Show answer



Show question


Unlike surveys or interviews, observational can remove __________ and __________.

Show answer


biases, sampling errors

Show question


What is NOT a disadvantage of observational research?

Show answer



Show question


Questions such as 'Why is the research conducted? What problem does it help solve? Is there a hypothesis the study tries to prove?' help the researcher identify ___________.

Show answer


the research purpose

Show question


Shop-along happens when the researcher observes the subject's behaviour in a __________ store and asks questions related to the experience

Show answer



Show question


________ can be used to track where people click the most on a website. 

Show answer


Heat maps

Show question


The type of research where the researcher asks subject to perform a task, then observe and ask for feedback is called ___________.

Show answer


Utility testing 

Show question


Observational research is a type of ____________.

Show answer


primary data collection method

Show question


There are six steps to conducting observational research, including identifying the target group, (1) _________, deciding on the research method, (2) ____________, sorting data, and finally analysing data. 

Show answer


(1) determining the research purpose

(2) observing the subject

Show question


Observational research can be carried in a natural or (1) _______, disguised or (2)______  , direct or indirect, structured or  (3)________ setting. 

Show answer


(1) contrived

(2) open

(3) non-structured

Show question


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