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Passive Data Collection Vs. Observational Research - The Difference Defined

By Charlotte Pearson

Passive Data Collection

When you start to consider these two methodologies in depth, you realise that whilst there are differences between them, there are also some striking similarities. Both are reliant on people completing particular actions for you to gather any data for example. For the purpose of this blog however, I’m going to focus on the differences…

1. Participant Involvement

Passive Data Collection
What is passive data collection? Basically, it’s a methodology which often takes place without the “participants” awareness and as the name suggests, without them having to actively do anything towards the research.

The cookies on your laptop, the location tracking on your mobile phone, the history of your spending habits via a retailer’s website/app are all types of ongoing passive data collection that you don’t necessarily think about as being used for research purposes.

Observational Research
Observational research on the other hand, is a form of data collection where participants are actively observed carrying out particular activities in either natural or dedicated environments.

In-home studies and accompanied shops are both types of observational research. Not only do they look at what people are doing but also how they’re doing it and their body language. Whilst the research is running there is a researcher involved and the participants are often aware that their actions are being observed. The impact that this has on the validity of the research is another point for discussion.

2. Researcher Involvement

Passive Data Collection
Due to the number of technological developments in passive data collection, both for the collection itself and basic data analysis, the researcher involvement is lesser. In my opinion, the role of the researcher here is more in the detailed analysis – they have to mine the vast quantity of data to pinpoint key information.

Observational Research
Conversely, observational research needs a researcher present at all times, especially if you take the more traditional face-to-face view of observational research. Even if it’s conducted online, the time investment can be substantial in terms of video analysis. I can’t emphasise enough, the role of the researcher is also crucial in ensuring data quality here. 

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"Researcher expertise is crucial to the integrity of observational research."

3. Research Sample

Passive Data Collection
As we all know, it can be a challenge to get people to opt in to research, especially where it feels like we are snooping. From this point of view, passive data collection is naturally easier to recruit for as there is no opt in, or one which requires minimal effort. By extension, the sample you select can be huge, much bigger than for any survey or qual research project.

Observational Research
Due to much greater researcher involvement, observational research tends to be on a smaller scale with the added difficulty of actively recruiting participants. This is often made harder by the desire to record and/or video participants whilst they are completing the task.

4. Research Output

Passive Data Collection
Passive data collection has heralded the era of big data – the volume of data which you can gather in a short space of time can be staggering.

Imagine the scenario, someone is purchasing on an app. It might only take them a few moments to complete the purchase but in that short space of time you can glean their location at point of purchase, their interests, their spending behaviour, preferences around payment methods and so on. If they’re using a loyalty card, you then have all that information to mine as well.

The “always on” lifestyle that we find ourselves in is only seeing the volume of data increase. Thankfully for us in the research world, there are a wide range of tools available which allow for rapid analysis. However, as Joe Jordan explains the data collected can only give us so much information and whilst it will answer the “what?” it will draw a blank with the “why?” and you’ll be required to look elsewhere for this information.

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"Big data can only answer the 'what' - it will draw a blank on the 'why'."

Observational Research
Observational research by its nature can take different paths depending on the participant. You never quite know what is going to happen during each observation. Whilst observing the researcher does have the opportunity to interact with participants - to explore the “why” behind the “what” – a critical component of true insight. However, the timing of this is key – too early and it can influence outstanding participant actions.

People can be very much a closed book, even more so when they are conscious about being watched. It is crucial for the researcher to slip into the background at the appropriate points to get the best quality data.

5. The Future

Passive Data Collection
There have been questions about passive data collection and the role that it will have in the future of market research – however, as long as people are looking for large samples in short timescales, passive data collection will be around.

Observational Research
In an era that necessitates feedback within tight budget constraints, will observational research still find a place in the researcher’s tool-kit? For me, it will. In the right use case it can give vast amounts of invaluable insight that may otherwise go untapped – but then again, I’m a qual researcher and I would say that!

Humanising Big Data

Charlotte Pearson

Charlotte Pearson- Head of Client Services

Personal Bio: Working across media, fashion, FMCG and retail accounts, Charlotte provides crucial support to our part service and DIY clients. She works directly with brand & insight managers to ensure research success.
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