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Looking in on the world

Observational Research explores the very contradictory nature of human response. The recent fascinating AQR seminar on the subject showed that, through immersing ourselves in consumers and their lives, we might reach a better understanding of the complexity of their relationships with the world around them and with brands.

Bill Pegram and Scott Lee kicked off with an intriguing look at the origins of observational research and its roots in ethnography. Interestingly they drew a parallel with the huge success enjoyed by Big Brother and our current thirst for all that is authentic and gritty.

Clients are also hungry to be rooted in consumer reality. Paul Edward's entertaining talk explored how social demographics are now in flux. We're no longer just mothers ­ we are sisters, lovers, actors, carers As researchers we increasingly need to acknowledge this multi-facetness and, through watching people in the real world, gain a better understanding of why they buy Hob Nobs one day and Rich Tea the next.

Other highlights of the day were Les Back's insights into his experience as a trained anthropologist. He argued for a broader definition of observation; a democracy of the senses where researchers use all their available faculties to build as full and rounded a picture of consumers as possible.

Siamack Salari's speech about building a more global vision for observational research argued for no half measures. We need to live and sleep (not literally!) with the consumer to really gain the best insights.

In the final sessions Martin Bontoft gave interesting examples of observational research's role in design, while Jon Chandler provided a case study of how it can be applied to understanding triggers and motivations for impulse buying.

The day was wrapped up by Chris Springford of Van den Bergh foods who offered a client perspective. It provided reassurance that observation is not researchers' flight of fancy but seen increasingly as a vital and exciting tool by clients who want to understand the consumer and their relationships with brands in technicolour.


Anniki Sommerville
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, November 2000
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2000