What Is Qualitative Observation? | Definition & Examples

Qualitative observation is a research method where the characteristics or qualities of a phenomenon are described without using any quantitative measurements or data. Rather, the observation is based on the observer’s subjective interpretation of what they see, hear, smell, taste, or feel.

Example: Qualitative observation
You are interested in studying the behaviour of children at a local after-school programme using qualitative observation. You attend a few sessions, jotting down what you see. Observations like ‘the child seems hesitant’, ‘the child avoids making eye contact’ or ‘the child prefers to play alone’ describe the behaviour of the children you are observing, but they do not involve numerical data or measurements.

Qualitative observations can be done using various methods, including direct observation, interviews, focus groups, or case studies. They can provide rich and detailed information about the behaviour, attitudes, perceptions, and experiences of individuals or groups.

When to use qualitative observation

Qualitative observation is a type of observational study, often used in conjunction with other types of research through triangulation. It is often used in fields like social sciences, education, healthcare, marketing, and design. This type of study is especially well suited for gaining rich and detailed insights into complex and/or subjective phenomena.

A qualitative observation could be a good fit for your research if:

  1. You are conducting exploratory research. If the goal of your research is to gain a better understanding of a phenomenon, object, or situation, qualitative observation is a good place to start.
  2. When your research topic is complex, subjective, or cannot be examined numerically. Qualitative observation is often able to capture the complexity and subjectivity of human behaviour, particularly for topics like emotions, attitudes, perceptions, or cultural practices. These may not be quantifiable or measurable through other methods.
  3. You are relying on triangulation within your research approach. Qualitative observation is a solid addition to triangulation approaches, where multiple sources of data are used to validate and verify research findings.

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Examples of qualitative observation

Qualitative observation is commonly used in marketing to study consumer behaviour, preferences, and attitudes towards products or services.

Example: Qualitative observation in marketing
You are interested in consumer attitudes towards your company’s newest energy drink. You decide to conduct a focus group, where you act as the moderator and encourage participants to share their thoughts and opinions about the product.

During the focus group, you focus particularly on qualitative observations, taking note of the participants’ facial expressions, body language, word choice, and tone of voice.

These qualitative observations can help you draw inferences about a variety of themes, such as willingness to try new energy drinks. These can help inform your company’s marketing strategies and product development.

Qualitative observation is often also used in design fields, to better understand user needs, preferences, and behaviours. This can aid in the development of products and services that better meet user needs.

Example: Qualitative observation in UX design
You are interested in how users interact with the digital products and services offered by your company’s app.

You are particularly focused on any usability issues that could impact customer satisfaction. You run a series of testing sessions, focusing on reactions like facial expressions, body language, and verbal feedback.

Expressions such as frowning, squinting, or long pauses can indicate frustration or confusion. These can help you identify usability issues like confusing navigation or unclear labelling, as well as develop solutions to improve the user experience informing your company’s design decisions over time.

Types of qualitative observations

There are several types of qualitative observation. Here are some of the most common types to help you choose the best one for your work.

Type Definition Example
Naturalistic observation The researcher observes how the participants respond to their environment in ‘real-life’ settings but does not influence their behaviour in any way Observing monkeys in a zoo enclosure
Participant observation Also occurs in ‘real-life’ settings. Here, the researcher immerses themself in the participant group over a period of time Spending a few months in a hospital with patients suffering from a particular illness
Covert observation Hinges on the fact that the participants do not know they are being observed Observing interactions in public spaces, like bus rides or parks
Case study Investigates a person or group of people over time, with the idea that close investigation can later be generalised to other people or groups Observing a child or group of children over the course of their time in elementary school

Advantages and disadvantages of qualitative observations

Qualitative observations are a great choice of research method for some projects, but they definitely have their share of disadvantages to consider.

Advantages of qualitative observations

  • Qualitative observations allow you to generate rich and nuanced qualitative data aiding you in understanding a phenomenon or object and providing insights into the more complex and subjective aspects of human experience.
  • Qualitative observation is a flexible research method that can be adjusted based on research goals and timeline. It also has the potential to be quite non-intrusive, allowing observation of participants in their natural settings without disrupting or influencing their behaviour.
  • Qualitative observation is often used in combination with other research methods, such as interviews or surveys, to provide a more complete picture of the phenomenon being studied. This triangulation can help improve the reliability and validity of the research findings.

Disadvantages of qualitative observations

  • Like many observational studies, qualitative observations are at high risk for many research biases, particularly on the side of the researcher in the case of observer bias. These biases can also bleed over to the participant size, in the case of the Hawthorne effect or social desirability bias.
  • Qualitative observations are typically based on a small sample size, which makes them very unlikely to be representative of the larger population. This greatly limits the generalisability of the findings if used as a standalone method, and the data collection process can be long and onerous.
  • Like other human subject research, qualitative observation has its share of ethical considerations to keep in mind and protect, particularly informed consent, privacy, and confidentiality.

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Frequently asked questions

What’s the difference between quantitative and qualitative methods?

Quantitative research deals with numbers and statistics, while qualitative research deals with words and meanings.

Quantitative methods allow you to test a hypothesis by systematically collecting and analysing data, while qualitative methods allow you to explore ideas and experiences in depth.

How is data analyzed in qualitative observation?

Data analysis in qualitative observation often involves searching for any recurring patterns, themes, and categories in your data. This process may involve coding the data, developing conceptual frameworks or models, and conducting thematic analysis. This can help you generate strong hypotheses or theories based on your data.

How do you define an observational study?

An observational study is a great choice for you if your research question is based purely on observations. If there are ethical, logistical, or practical concerns that prevent you from conducting a traditional experiment, an observational study may be a good choice. In an observational study, there is no interference or manipulation of the research subjects, as well as no control or treatment groups.

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Tegan George

Tegan is an American based in Amsterdam, with master's degrees in political science and education administration. While she is definitely a political scientist at heart, her experience working at universities led to a passion for making social science topics more approachable and exciting to students.