I just stumbled across a great 10-year old article on observational research - watching people do stuff. I feel like we don't do as much of this kind of research as we should. Maybe it's because we're in such an age of ROI and measurement that simple observation seems unsubstantial or something. Which, of course, it isn't. Observing people can be very revealing because it removes any need to rely on people's often mistaken memories, opinions and beliefs about how and why they do things.
But, of course, it's also tricky and subtle and you need to know what you're looking for. Which is where this article comes in handy. It's called Seven Rules for Observational Research, and despite being 10 years old it's still well worth the read.
Here are a few choice bits:
Whatever you saw could have happened differently. Your shoppers could have taken more time to get their bearings, or less time. They might have gone down a different aisle. They might have picked up more items, or not as many. They might have sought help from an employee. They might have, but they didn’t. What they did needs to be explained...
Once you recognize that everything people do is the result of something, you can begin looking for that something. Maybe it’s something about them. Or the people they’re with. Or the environment they’re in. Or something.
The "whole activity" is the key to what the consumer is trying to accomplish. Think of activities as rings of context. Pumping gas takes place inside the "driving somewhere" ring, which takes place inside the "going home from work" ring, and so forth. Most research projects involve single activity units like pumping gas, or kitchen clean-up, or visiting a fast-food drive-thru; but these aren’t generally whole activities. The whole activity is a set of behaviors that includes these small units plus at least one layer of context. It’s "what’s going on" from the consumer point of view, and it may be very different from what you (and your client) think is going on.
To get clues about a whole activity, look at how people enter the activity you’re trying to observe, and how they exit. What’s going on just before and just afterward? How do they get to the point you’re interested in? What and who do they bring with them? What mental state are they in? How do they leave? What do they take with them and what do they leave behind?