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The following article was written by Coleman Patterson and appeared in the Business section of the Abilene Reporter-News.

Observation as a marketing research tool, May 25, 2008, 2D.

It seems like the major television networks broadcast an abundance of crime shows during primetime viewing hours.  Many of today’s crime dramas portray high-tech investigation techniques and the use of ultra-modern crime labs.  Despite the portrayal of many high-tech investigative procedures, it is still common to see suspects being interrogated by detectives in questioning rooms behind one-way mirrors with prosecuting lawyers and police officers looking on.  Stakeouts and undercover stings are also common scenes in those shows.  When called into action, plain-clothes undercover officers are often shown suddenly emerging from the background—oftentimes wearing disguises that make them appear as ordinary people and passers-by. 

As portrayed on many crime shows, the one-way mirror in the interrogation room allows officers to observe the non-verbal communication, behaviors, and reactions of suspects during questioning without ever being seen.  Likewise, undercover officers disguise themselves to blend into their backgrounds and appear as uninvolved bystanders until they are called into action.  Cover is “blown” only when the situation dictates such actions.  Once an officer’s true identity is revealed, the behavior of the suspects and those under investigation often change—the presence of a police officer changes the ways that criminals behave.

Observation is also a common customer and market research technique.  It can be employed in formal research settings with the use of one-way mirrors and in normal organizational settings using undercover researchers.  Observational research techniques allow investigators to collect information about attitudes and behaviors that can be hard or impossible to collect using surveys and other quantitative research techniques.  In some instances, the information gleaned from observational research is used to develop models that can later be studied using more sophisticated quantitative methods.

One-way mirrors might be used by market research firms to observe children playing with toys, members of focus groups discussing the merits of a certain concept or product, or participants engaging in simulations and activities.  Undercover observation research can be used to analyze the behaviors of real customers and employees in real situations.  Undercover observers can track customer traffic flow through a store, analyze the things that catch shoppers’ attention, and study consumers’ shopping habits in great detail.  Mystery shoppers and undercover observers can also analyze the behaviors and effectiveness of store employees.

Observation techniques can allow researchers to collect information from consumers with minimal disturbance of their normal behaviors.  These techniques require different methods of data collection and analysis than other research techniques.  Researchers must use their senses to capture the whole observation experience and then translate those experiences into words.  They must see beyond the ordinary and capture details in their observations that are often overlooked in everyday life.  After condensing and consolidating the records of raw observation data, researchers look for patterns, commonalities, and themes in the data and then draw conclusions.  As with other forms of research involving human participants, great care should be taken to ensure ethical treatment of the subjects and to guarantee that they do not suffer undo harm or distress.

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© 2006, 2007, 2008  Coleman Patterson, All Rights Reserved