Can you observe the future? What about the past? Can you observe something you haven’t seen? Watching a movie or reading a book can let our brain contemplate these issues – but not experience it. So until recently, the answer has been mostly ‘no’. Observation has always been about what is happening now, and other qualitative techniques have been about “what would you do if….”.
There are two key developments in technology that have changed the “practical observable universe” – in both number and content – and will continue to do so. With over 2 billion of the 7.4 billion people on Earth on smartphones and social media – over a quarter of the world’s population is now in this practical observable universe. The “smartphone” requirement is used to narrow the population, not to limit to a particular tool – though it is the most important one. Traditional ethnography has allowed us to see only 20 people, or 50, or 100.
The passive role of our digital footprint allows us to share a lot of information with a lot of different companies. We share this information in ways that we don’t often think about – but to which we actively agree – by hitting the “Accept” button, or using sensors, or having a wearable device, or using eye/fingerprint scanning. This information can tell where you are or have been, how you’re feeling, what you watched on TV or listened to in your car, what and who you care about, what you shopped for and bought, and what you thought about and then read about online. Amazing information. When you add this information to the more active role of mobile ethnography or qualitative – the depth of information can be as impressive as the breadth. Several industries, other than the spy industry, are doing a good job of utilizing this information. Healthcare uses social media analytics and geo-targeting to identify and manage potential pandemics. The automotive industry is using the Internet of Things and sensors to understand driving styles and personal needs to adapt the time commuting to home more efficiently. These are just a few small examples.
The observable has always been in the present – but not anymore. Virtual reality allows us to experience non-existent situations – and what we would do in those situations – in a way that makes them feel very real. This technology allows us to create situations to understand consumer behavior in a “what if” manner. Projective techniques have often been used for this in a qualitative setting. Virtual reality is the mother of all projective techniques. Now that the headsets work with most popular smartphones and you can purchase them for $2 (I just checked Amazon) – their integration into marketing research is on its way to being ubiquitous. And the use cases – from advertising to product concepts to store layouts – are primed.
The “practical observable universe” is larger now than ever. One concern for learning from this universe is that our industry has lagged many in adopting new technologies (e.g., we still have methodological discussions about adapting to mobile as a data-collection channel). And aggregating and using the data is still a challenge as the “Wal-Mart” of data still doesn’t exist – but it can be found, created, and used. The effort is time-consuming – but the benefits can be enormous.