Why passive observation will change the face of food and drink research

8 weeks into the new year and I’ve well and truly embraced New Year, New Me. I’m training for a half marathon and I’m trying to improve my diet, tracking everything I eat on an app. But there are days when I forget and have to cast my mind back. Did I have a snack at 11? Just how many of those sweets did eat? And sometimes I just can’t bear to document that moment of weakness where I broke and reached for the biscuits.

And I’m not alone. This happens in food and drink research. We rely on consumers telling us how they live to inform everything from packaging to product development. But what if there was a better way? A way that meant we no longer had to rely on claimed or recalled behaviours alone? A way that would help us understand how people really eat.

Say hello to passive observation

Meet passive observation, the new methodology that’s getting us beyond what people say they do. Passive observation uses the latest in smart home and wearable technology to observe people in home without the need for a researcher to be there. The result? We’re able to see how people actually live.

Why is passive observation so exciting for food and drink research?


1. Going beyond what people say

By removing the researcher from the equation, we’re able to uncover real behaviours. We often get people guffawing when we say this. How can people act naturally when there are cameras in your home? But one of the things that has really surprised us about passive observation is just how quickly people acclimatise– soon forgetting that the cameras are there. For food and drink research this is important. When there’s no one else in the room, people aren’t overthinking what they’re doing or modifying their behaviour, we’re able to see what they get up to – and what they really consume – on a day-to-day basis.

2. Uncovering subconscious and unconscious behaviours

Passive observation shows us much more than just what people eat. We see the context in which this happens, the different influences on their behaviour. From an advert playing in the background to a child crying, we can see exactly what prompts someone to open a packet of crisps. And this is what’s really exciting about passive observation. By using new technology to observe people, we’re able to access insights that you just wouldn’t get to through any other type of research. We’re able to uncover the subconscious and the unconscious– the things that people don’t even realise they do and would never be able to tell you, even if you asked.

3. Understanding what people really mean

Food and drink is one of those categories where different things can mean very different things to different people. My definition of what’s healthy will be vastly different to that of a bodybuilder, for example. This happens because we all contextualise what we say based on our own lives and experiences. But it’s problematic for research. If we just rely on what people say, we don’t get the whole picture. Passive observation allows us to see exactly what’s going on, to get an unfiltered view.

So is passive observation the holy grail?

Passive is a powerful tool for understanding real behaviours. But it alone is not enough. Where passive really comes into its own is when it’s used with more traditional forms of research. By combining the two, you’re able to explore not just the what but the why. You’re able to see how people perceive themselves and how this differs from what they actually do. Ultimately, you’re able to build the whole picture so you can develop products and services that meet their needs.