Observation

SHOPPERS UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

Observational research ranges from the distant to the intimate. For some projects, studying footage of people browsing in a shopping mall or negotiating their way through an airport can be appropriate. For others, researchers spend time with subjects as they use the product at home or work.

'It's a matter of trying to get under the skin of real people,' says Tim Brown, European director of Ideo, a product development company. For example, watching a travel agent set up a conference call by arranging a speaker phone for each person and putting the handsets together demonstrated how she equated one phone with one person - an insight Ideo used in its advice on phone software to AT&T, the US telecoms operator. Finding the right people to watch is critical for techniques that involve observation of a few individuals or households. In contrast to conventional market research, where consumers are chosen because they fit squarely in the middle of particular categories, consumers picked for shadowing are intended, as Mr Brown says, to 'hit the edges'.

This might involve selecting people who are 'early adapters' to new technology, and those most resistant to it; or people using the product in an unusual environment.

In the UK the process can still be informal, while in the USA selection is itself a business. 'We use an outside agency - which mainly handles focus groups - to screen and recruit participants,' says Liz Sanders, head of research at Fitch, the design consultancy, in Ohio. One factor driving the growth of observational research is technology. Advances in photography and video recording make it easier to obtain and analyse the observations, increasing the research's value. A second factor, technology, is itself an area where consumers may not be well placed to articulate needs that could be met by a new generation of computers, telephones or other machines.

Fitch used observational research when it was advising Compaq, the computer company, on the design of the Presario personal computer. 'By working with consumers in their homes, we came to the realisation that a computer should be more friendly for home use,' says John Fillingham, director of policy research at Fitch in the UK. 'For example, the Presario's features include a compact disk rack and a great pair of speakers - it looks more like a consumer product.'

He adds, however, that while observation shows researchers what people do, it does not tell them why. 'A combination of observation and what consumers say about what they do gives you an ability to cross-check.'

Dorothy Leonard, writing in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review, identifies five types of information available from observation. Apart from needs that consumers have not yet articulated, they are: the triggers that prompt people to use a product or service; how the product relates to the consumer's environment; how consumers customise the product (and so how manufacturers can make those modifications for them); and the intangible qualities consumers value in the product.

Some consultants believe observational techniques can contribute even in the area of brand identity, provided the observations are evaluated properly. This goes well beyond whether packaging is convenient to open or whether a software program is easy to use.

'Every kind of behaviour has a particular framework and theory,' says Rick Robinson of E-Lab. 'It's a matter of finding the meaningful pattern.' Steelcase, the

US office furniture company, wanted to shift from being rooted in manufacturing excellence to being based on understanding work processes. Observational research helped it develop the new identity, and design its showrooms to encourage customers to buy on the basis of that understanding.

Observing how people behave is valuable in helping a company meet a specified aim.

Source: Smith1 (reprinted with permission)

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