Observational research is a qualitative research technique in which researchers observe the continuous behavior of participants in a natural situation. Depending on the type of observational research and the objective of the study, the market researcher will have different levels of participation in the study. Here are some questions to ask yourself when analyzing your observations:

What is the meaning of what you have observed?

Why do you think what you have observed has happened? What evidence do you have of your reasoning?

What events or behaviors were typical or widespread? In your case, what was unusual or out of the ordinary? How were they distributed among the categories of people?

Do you see any connection or pattern in what you observed?

Why did the people you observed proceed to an action the way they did? What implications does this have?

Do the stated or implicit objectives of what has been observed coincide with what has been achieved?

What were the relative merits of the behaviors you observed?

What were the strengths and weaknesses of the observations you recorded?

Do you see connections between what you observed and the results of similar studies identified from your literature review?

How do your observations fit into the broader context of professional practice? How have your observations been able to change or affirm your perceptions of professional practice?

Have you learned anything from what you have observed?

NOTE: Base your interpretations solely on what you have actually observed. Do not speculate or manipulate your observational data to fit the theoretical framework of your study.

Techniques for recording in observation

Although there is no limit to the type of data collection techniques you can use, here are the most commonly used methods:


This is the most common and simple method to record your observations. Note-taking tips include: organizing some shorthand symbols so that the record of basic or repeated actions does not impede your ability to observe, using many small paragraphs, reflecting changes in activities, who speaks, etc., and, leaving space on the page to be able to write down additional thoughts and ideas about what is being observed, any theoretical ideas and notes for oneself that are reserved for further research. See the drop-down tab for more information about note-taking.


With the advent of smartphones, an almost unlimited number of high-quality photographs of the objects, events and people observed during a field study can be taken. Photographs can help capture an important moment in time, as well as document details about the space where the observation takes place. Taking a photograph can save you time documenting the details of a space that would otherwise require extensive note-taking.

However, keep in mind that flash photography can impair your ability to discreetly observe, so evaluate the lighting of your observation space; if it’s too dark, you may have to resort to note-taking. In addition, you should reject the idea that photographs represent a kind of “window to the world”, because this assumption creates the risk of overinterpreting what they show. As with any data collection product, you are the only instrument of interpretation and creation of meaning, not the object itself.

Video and audio recordings

Video or audio recording of observations has the positive effect of providing an unfiltered record of the observation event. It also facilitates repeated analysis of observations. This can be especially useful when gathering additional information or knowledge during research. However, these techniques have the negative effect of increasing the degree of interference as an observer and will often not be practical or even allowed in certain circumstances [e.g. interaction between a doctor and a patient] and in certain organisational settings [e.g. a court].


It is not an artistic endeavor, but refers to the possible need, for example, to draw a map of the observation environment or to illustrate objects in relation to people’s behavior. It can also take the form of approximate tables, charts, or graphs that document the frequency and type of activities observed. Subsequently, they can be placed in a more readable format when the field report is written. To save time, make a table [i.e., columns and rows] on separate paper before an observation if you know you’re entering the data that way.

You may want to consider using a laptop or other electronic device to record your notes while watching, but be aware of the possibility that the clicking of the keys while typing or noises from your device can be annoying, while writing your notes on paper is relatively quiet and discreet. Always evaluate your presence in the environment in which you are collecting the data to minimize your impact on the subject or phenomenon studied.

Skills Required When Performing Observation

Deliberate observation and data collection techniques are not innate skills; they are skills that must be learned and practiced to achieve competence. Before your first observation, practice the technique you plan to use in an environment similar to your study site [for example, take notes on how people choose to enter the queues of supermarket checkouts if your research involves examining the choice patterns of unrelated people who are forced to queue in crowded social settings]. When the act of data collection counts, you’ll be glad you practiced beforehand.

A question that is rarely discussed in the literature is whether to move around the place of study while observing or whether to remain located in one place. Moving can be intrusive, but it makes it easier to observe people’s behavior from multiple vectors. However, if you stay in one place throughout the [o durante cada observación] observation, you will end up being confused with the background and decrease the possibility of involuntarily influencing people’s behavior. If the venue has a complex set of interdependent interactions or activities [e.g., a playing field], consider moving; if the place of study is relatively fixed [e.g., a classroom], consider staying in one place while observing.

Examples of things to document while observing

Physical environment

The characteristics of an occupied space and the human use of the place where the observation is carried out.

Objects and material culture

It refers to the presence, placement, and arrangement of objects that influence the behavior or actions of those observed. If appropriate, describe the cultural artifacts that represent the beliefs [i.e., values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions] of the individuals you are observing [for example, the choice of certain types of clothing in observing family gatherings during culturally specific holidays].

Use of language

Don’t just observe, but listen to what is being said, how it is said, and the tone of conversations between participants.

Behavior cycles

It’s about documenting when and who performs what behavior or task and how often they occur. Record when this behavior occurs within the environment.

The order in which events unfold

Write down sequential patterns of behavior or the time when actions or events occur and their meaning. Also, be prepared to write down moments that deviate from these sequential patterns of behavior or actions.

Physical characteristics of the subjects

If relevant, write down the personal characteristics of the individuals observed. Please note that unless this data can be verified in interviews or from documentary evidence, you should only focus on characteristics that can be clearly observed [e.g. clothing, physical appearance, body language].

Expressive body movements

This would include things like body posture or facial expressions. Keep in mind that it may also be relevant to assess whether expressive body movements support or contradict the language used in conversation.

Brief notes on all these examples contextualize his observations; however, your observation notes will be guided primarily by your theoretical framework, keeping in mind that your observations will feed into and potentially modify or alter these frameworks.

Sampling techniques used in observation

Sampling refers to the process used to select a portion of the population for study. Qualitative research, of which observation is a method of data collection, is usually based on unintentional, non-probabilistic sampling, rather than the probabilistic or random approaches characteristic of quantitative studies. Sampling in observational research is flexible and usually continues until no new topics arise from the data, a point called data saturation.

All sampling decisions are made for the explicit purpose of obtaining the richest possible source of information to answer research questions. Sampling decisions assume that you know what you want to observe, what behaviors are important to record, and what research problem is being addressed before starting the study. These questions determine the sampling technique you should use, so make sure you have answered them properly before selecting a sampling method.

Forms of sampling when making an observation include:

Sampling ad libitum

This approach is not that different from what people do at the zoo; they observe anything that seems interesting in the moment. There is no organized system for recording observations; you simply write down what seems relevant at the time. The advantage of this method is that relatively rare or unusual behaviors can often be observed that could go unnoticed with more deliberate sampling methods. This method is also useful for obtaining preliminary observations that can be used to develop your final field study. The problems with this method include the possibility of an inherent bias towards striking behaviors or individuals, thereby losing mundane or repeated patterns of behavior, and which may miss brief interactions in social settings.

Behavioral sampling

It involves observing the entire group of subjects and recording each occurrence of a specific behavior of interest and with reference to which individuals were involved. This method is useful for recording infrequent behaviors that are not recorded with other sampling methods and is often used in conjunction with focal or scanning [véase más adelante] methods. However, sampling may be biased towards certain eye-catching behaviors.

Continuous logging

It provides a faithful record of behavior, including frequencies, durations, and latencies. [el tiempo que transcurre entre un estímulo y la respuesta al mismo] This is a very demanding method because you try to record everything within the environment and, therefore, you can sacrifice the reliability of the measurement. In addition, durations and latencies are only reliable if subjects remain present throughout the data collection. However, this method facilitates the analysis of behavioral sequences and ensures the obtaining of a large amount of data about the place of observation and the people who are in it. The use of audio or video recordings is very useful in this type of sampling.

Focal sampling

It consists of observing an individual for a certain time and recording all cases of their behavior. You usually have a set of predetermined categories or types of behaviors that you want to observe [for example, when a teacher walks around the classroom] and keep track of the duration of those behaviors. This approach does not tend to skew one behavior over another and provides significant details about an individual’s behavior. However, with this method, you will likely have to perform many focal samples before you have a good idea of how group members interact. It can also be difficult, in certain environments, to keep an individual in sight throughout the observation period without being intrusive.

Instant sampling

In this case, the observation sessions are divided into short intervals divided by sampling points. At each sampling point the observer records whether predetermined behaviors of interest are occurring. This method is not effective for recording discrete events of short duration, and often observers will want to record novel behaviors that occur slightly before or after the sampling point, creating sampling error. Although not accurate, this method gives you an idea of the durations and is relatively easy to do. It is also good for recording patterns of behavior that occur at a specific time, such as body movements or positions.

Sampling from scratch

It is very similar to instant sampling, only the observer records whether the behaviors of interest have occurred at any time during an interval rather than at the instant of the sampling point. This method is useful for capturing data on patterns of behavior that begin and end repeatedly and quickly, but last only a short period of time. The disadvantage of this method is that you get a dimensionless score for an entire recording session, so you only get one data point for each recording session.

Scan sampling

This method consists of taking a census of the entire observed group in predetermined time periods and recording what each individual does at that time. This is useful for obtaining group behavior data and allows for data that is uniformly representative across individuals and time periods. On the other hand, this method may be biased towards the most striking behaviors and much of what happens between observations, especially rare or unusual behaviors, can be lost. It is also difficult to record more than a few individuals in a group setting without missing out on what each individual does at each predetermined moment [e.g., children sitting at a table during lunch at school]. The use of audio or video recordings is useful in this type of sampling.

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Bibliographic References

Emerson, Robert M. et al. “Participant Observation and Fieldnotes.” In Handbook of Ethnography. Paul Atkinson et al., eds. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001), 352-368

Emerson, Robert M. et al. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011; Ethnography, Observational Research, and Narrative Inquiry. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Pace, Tonio. Writing Field Reports. Scribd Online Library

Pyrczak, Fred and Randall R. Bruce. Writing Empirical Research Reports: A Basic Guide for Students of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. 5th ed. Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Publishing, 2005; Report Writing. UniLearning. University of Wollongong, Australia

Observation Techniques. Photo: Unsplash. Credits: Antenna @antenna

Observation Techniques. Photo: Unsplash. Credits: Antenna @antenna

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