5.9 Types of Observation: Unobtrusive

Types of Observation: Unobtrusive

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Mike Mozart: CC BY 2.0

In some circumstances, unobtrusive observation may be more effective than participant observation, especially if the observer’s presence will change the situation under observation.

Hidden camera investigations have traditionally been one of the most obvious types of unobtrusive observation examples. After careful deliberation within the news organization about the ethical and legal ramifications of using a hidden camera, a journalist may use unobtrusive observation techniques that capture activities or conversations. Investigative reports may rely on such observation techniques as a way to document improper behavior or malfeasance.

Unobtrusive observation techniques also are used by advertising professionals. A very large Chicago agency had an ongoing research project in a town of 8,000 to 12,000 about 150 miles from Chicago. Advertising researchers visited the town on a regular basis and politely listened in on conversations in coffee shops and churches, hairdressers’ shops, and taverns.

The agency professionals were trying to learn what is important to average folks, what occupies their hearts and minds. In the process, they thought they would gain clues as to why people don’t always follow cooking directions for frozen pizzas, or what they really think about prunes. The advertising professionals learned to prepare themselves well for their visits. One agency employee’s too-hip hairdo marked her as an outsider in her observer role, while another employee learned that driving a pickup truck rather than his Audi to town would help him blend into his observation environment. (Stern)

A more recent version of this type of observation involves ad agency personnel asking consumers to take video cameras into their homes to record their every-day activities in the kitchen, while cleaning the house, and other typical household behavior. The idea is to learn more about how consumers use products in their day-to-day lives rather than in the artificial environment of a focus group room or a mock living room set up in a research lab. Viewing videos posted by consumers on YouTube as they talk about how they use various products, along with their opinions about them, would be another way of conducting an unobtrusive observation.


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Information Strategies for Communicators Copyright © 2015 by Kathleen A. Hansen and Nora Paul is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.