Observational research approaches to understand your audience

4 Observational Research Approaches to understand your audience

The observational research approach is also known as, field research. Observational research is a non-experimental (correlational) research. During the study, the researcher observes ongoing behaviours among the target groups. Observational research approaches are mainly common in marketing and social field. A social research phenomenon entails observing a phenomenon in their natural setting. This form of research is different from experimental research. It does not involve creating a quasi-artificial environment or manipulating a particular variable as in the case of experimental research. Observational research approaches enable researchers to study behaviours that occur naturally in their natural settings. There is no manipulation of variables whatsoever.  In this article, I am going to show you the four approaches to observational research.

Complete Observer

This refers to a detached observer where the participants do not see or notice the researcher. Participants are more likely to act naturally if they are not aware that a researcher is observing them. Complete observer approach reduces the Hawthorne effect. Also known as, the observer effect, the Hawthorne effect is a reaction whereby participants modify some aspects of their behaviours. The participants change their behaviours if they become aware that someone is observing them. Hawthorne effect can compromise the integrity of research, especially the relationship between variables.

Observational research
A complete observer


  • Deception

This approach has faced criticism because it is likely to raise ethical questions. The critics argue that an approach is a form of deception. It is not good to observe a person without their knowledge that they are being observed. However, in some situations and locations, a complete observer may be the only approach that can help you gather the kind of either qualitative or quantitative data that you need. As one of the observational research approaches, it is ideal when collecting data in public places like airport, coffee shops, office building lobbies, or public bathrooms.

  • No Interaction

The complete observer approach alleviates the fieldworker from interacting with the informants. The researcher observes in a way that they cannot be recognized or identified by those being studied. The people serve as the researcher’s informants, yet they are not even aware of the observer’s presence.

  • Ethnocentrism

In a setting where the fieldworker does not interact meaningfully with an informant, the likelihood of ethnocentrism is high. Ethnocentrism occurs when a researcher fails to account for the viewpoints of informants. In a complete observer approach, the researcher may not get to the point of fully understanding the informant.

The complete observer may adopt various approaches, including eavesdropping. The observer may also reconnaissance any kind of social setting. The complete observer may have the urge to ask the informants to clarify what they say. However, the complete observer’s role is to remain detached and to take no self-risks. By remaining completely outside the informant’s interaction, a complete observer faces the risk of misunderstanding the informant/observed.

Observer as a Participant

In this approach, the participants know and recognize the researcher. In most cases, the participants are aware of the research goals of the researcher. The researcher enjoys some interaction with the participants though the level of interaction is limited. The researcher strives to play a neutral role as possible. If a researcher is following a customer home to understand how a customer uses certain software, the researcher may use this approach.

The observer as a participant approach is common in studies that entail one-visit interviews. The researcher acts as a formal observe. The researcher does not get involved in any form of informal observation and participation. Such observational research approaches do not pose a high risk of going native because of a limited relationship between the researcher and the participant. However, the superficial and brief interaction between the researcher and the informant may lead to misunderstanding. The researcher may misunderstand the informant and the informant may misunderstand the researcher.

Observational research approach
observer as a participant

One problem is unique to this form of observation. The brief interaction between the researcher and the informant leads to a misunderstanding of one another. Consequently, this affects self-expression. You might find yourself face the problem of self-expression. Most importantly, this might occur when you feel threatened by those you are supposed to be studying through observational research approach.

When you act as a participant, you might have many brief encounters with informants. Therefore, acting as a participant-observer makes one start experiencing inadequate understanding of the natural environment. The very brief encounters with informants may lead to wrong perceptions. In this research approach, it is common for communication barriers to arise without the knowledge of a researcher.

Participant as an Observer

Is an observational research approach that makes a researcher interact freely with the participants. The interaction between the researcher and the participants resembles that of close friends or colleagues. However, even if the researcher interacts freely with the informants, the informants are well aware they are interacting with a researcher.

As part of the observational research approach, it remains effective in carrying out research on remote indigenous populations. The approach may also come in handy when studying inner-city cultures. There is a typical researcher’s joke that in every family photo in the remote villages, there is a graduate student/researcher.

Observational research
The picture shows a participant who acts as an observer


  • Time Wastage

During community studies, a researcher develops relationships with informants through time. In addition, the researcher spends more time participating instead of making observations. At certain times, the researcher may observe formally, for example, during scheduled interviews. In other instances, the researcher observes informally, for example, when attending gatherings or parties.

  • Uneasiness  among the participants

At first, when you visit a community, the informants may feel uneasy about your presence in either formal and informal situations. However, as trust builds between you and your informants, the uneasiness fades. The informants learn to trust you. While at the same time, you also learn how to trust your informants.

  • Forget roles and objectives

As the familiarity between the researcher and the informant grows, some problems may arise. The parties may become too familiar to the extent of forgetting their roles and objectives. For instance, the informant may become too familiar with the researcher, and he/she may forget the role of informant and become an observer. On the other hand, a researcher may over-identify with the informants to the extent of losing his/her research perspective. With too much familiarity, the observer/researcher may go native. If this happens, the observer may still hold the role of a researcher; however, in the real sense, the observer will be merely pretending.

Although the observer may try to become close to the informants in order to gain their trust, the observer should retain a stranger aspect. This will prevent the observer from reaching a very intimate form with the informants. This may affect the research objective.

  • Long term relationship

With too much interaction and intimacy, the informant and the observer may strive to continue a relationship, which is outside the initial observer-informant relationship. In this case, the informant and observer may forget the initial roles of their relationship. If the interaction and the pretence become too complex, the participant as an observer may temporarily leave the field. The observer takes some time to weigh and re-clarify his/her self-conceptions and role-relationships.

Complete Participant

In this approach, the observer/researcher is more of a spy. The observer is fully engaged and takes parts in the activities of the participants. The participants/informants are not aware that research is going on. Even if the participants full interact with the observer and perform activities together, they are not aware of who he/she is.  This research approach is commonly referred to as going native and it entails fully engaging with the activities of the natives.


In the case of customer research, a complete participant is more of a secret shopper. A complete participant is also more of an undercover boss, who interacts with informants who are not aware of his/her status. The best way to understand a people, a role, or a culture is to experience it firsthand.  If you want to understand the real qualities and values of a people, then go as a complete participant.

A complete participant interacts with the informants as naturally as possible. For example, a complete participant may work in a warehouse or even a factory to understand the inner-workings of informal groups. Once the observer gains acceptance, it becomes easier to participate in work activities freely. The observer may also participate in the intimate life of the workers outside the place of work.

observational research
A complete participant interacts with informants

The role of pretence is a common theme. It does not matter whether the observer understands the work he/she is performing. All that matters is the fact that the observer understands that he/she is pretending to be a colleague. The complete participant must always be conscious of the fact that he/she alone is aware of the role of the researcher.

Because a complete participant might pretend to be another person all the time, you as an observer needs some time to cool off every now and then. After a complete participation period, you then get some time off.

Complete participant research is more effective in learning aspects that may escape an observer. However, this role places the researcher in a pretended role for so long. The researcher has to be careful in drawing a line between the pretended role and self.


In user research, it can be challenging to gather authentic data. Carrying out an observation outside a controlled environment is an effective research method. You will get the real picture, as participants are more likely to act in a naturally in areas where they live, study, work, or enjoy their recreational activities.

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