Editor's note: Kelly Heatly is president of Heatly Custom Research LLC, Dallas. Jill Matthews is president of Bright Cactus LLC, a Dallas research firm.

Understanding buyer behavior; exploring purchase motivations; evaluating product concepts. Ideally, meeting these research objectives involves observing and talking to consumers within the purchase environment – in the moment, on the scene.

How does a brand perform at point of purchase, in its retail habitat? Marketers and researchers alike have become accustomed to answering this question in a structured setting, away from the purchase environment, such as a research facility, online discussion board, via Webcam or by phone. With widely-used mobile technology at hand, a good dose of know-how and more than an ounce of courage, qualitative researchers can step out of the comfortable facility and into the wild with consumers, where their reactions, behaviors and attitudes count most.

This article focuses on when to take qualitative research into the wild and how to approach the overall design. Into-the-wild research, herein referred to as in situ research – meaning, on-site research – is conducted specifically within the purchase environment, where products and services are selected, experienced and/or purchased by consumers, excluding online or in-home environments. In situ research includes shop-along interviews, small-group discussions and observational research led by a moderator. In situ research can also capture consumer behavior when the moderator is not present, via mobile technology tools.

In situ research has a distinct advantage over other research methodologies in that it mirrors real-life variables and influences in the environment: staff interaction, visual merchandising, sensory components, store traffic and the presence of other shoppers. Additionally, depending on the category, in situ research provides an opportunity to see fir...