Customers at an Apple store. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison)
What is the floor made of in an Apple Store? What color is it? Millions of people have walked into and on the floor in an Apple store yet cannot answer those two questions. Why? Often, as we move through life, we see but we do not observe. And to be a better marketer or entrepreneur, you must learn to observe what goes on all around you. Why? Because the world is just getting so competitive that in order to differentiate your company or your product, it might be a rather simple observation of the customer that spells success or failure of your company or product.
Observational research, ethnography, or, in plain English, “watching people do stuff,” seems to make so much common sense but most marketers and entrepreneurs just don’t use it. You would think the largest brands in the world would use this everyday but they don’t. Yogi Berra’s famous line that “You can observe a lot just by watching” is funny but also very serious. Simple observation remains the most under-utilized qualitative technique in marketing research. One of the reasons seems to be that many people and even researchers, just don’t know how to get value out of simple observation. You need to be obsessed with customer truth and hunt it maniacally. What better truth than simply observing what is really happening?
By the way, you could conduct a simple observation lab for a website just by following customers in real time by conducting a website path analysis. Then combine those insights with a series of focus groups to get the whole picture. For every observation lab, you could have an endless list of questions. Keep the questions simple and limit your questions to fewer than twenty. It’s okay if you have an objective in mind but you need to keep your mind open or you will not really observe, you will just see what you want or expect to see. Here is the good news. If you have an open mind you will observe way more than you ever did before. Hopefully, all your senses, not just your eyes will be engaged.
Here are some simple guidelines that will help you with your own observation lab.
Ordinary is what you’re there to observe. Don’t go looking for something extraordinary. What you’re really looking for are the insights hidden in the ordinary. Nothing people do is natural. You may watch people walking into a retail environment. They’ll walk in, look around to get their bearings, walk over to a display or proceed down an aisle, maybe pick up an item or two or compare prices. Observing what they really do is simply the first truth about what they really do. That’s it.
Whatever you saw could have happened differently. The retail store 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. Start noticing the regularities: do most people need a period of time to get their bearings when they come into the store? Where are they when they do this? Once you recognize that everything people do is the result of something, you can begin looking for that something.
Become the master of the obvious. Take the most obvious thing you’ve observed. Maybe you were watching people wait to have their cars repaired, and they didn’t do anything. Maybe they actually fell asleep in the waiting area. Maybe they spent the whole time looking bored. Maybe they were on their smartphones. Ask yourself why they were so bored and remember that boredom isn’t natural. Humans are the most curious creatures on earth.
Sweat all the little details. Take good notes. Make short movies. Think about where people walk, stand, sit, and look. For how long. Doing what. With whom. Note every little activity. Your goal is not to look for anything but to meticulously record everything you see and observe. Evaluate it later.
The “whole activity” is the key. Think of all of the customer’s activities as concentric rings of context. Stopping for 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 cleanup, or visiting a fast-food drive-thru but these aren’t generally the 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 think is actually happening.
The most obvious things are obvious. The problem is that they are obvious in hindsight and the context doesn’t appear until it appears in a real observation. Want to hedge your observation bet? Marry your observation even more by watching and talking. You can observe people all day long and you will get some insights. But combine observation with engaging the customers and asking them simple, non-leading questions. Why are you here today? Did you drive by yourself? Which route did you take? What are you shopping for today? Was there something you did not find?
Customers may not always be right but they are never wrong. Getting more insights from customers will help you with your product, brand or company strategy.
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