In praise of face to face
Shiny new methods might get most of the attention, but plenty of researchers are still standing up for face to face. Robert Bain meets them – in person, of course
Pop psychology books and executive coaches will tell you that 80% of communication is non-verbal. Or 95%. Or two-thirds. The figure doesn’t matter much – we all know the difference between an in-person meeting and a phone call, whether it’s with a loved one, a business associate or a market researcher.
In the early days of research, face to face was the only way to do things. But over the years technology has offered more and more ways of contacting people that don’t require you to actually knock on their door or stop them in the street – first telephone surveys and now a panoply of online methods.
“The core of qualitative research has always been authentic contact. No matter how well informed you might be, if you haven’t met people then what you think about them has an element of fantasy about it”
Roy Langmaid, The Langmaid Practice
The same is true in the wider world outside research: you can now order your shopping, manage your bank account, book a holiday and even meet people online - without really meeting anyone. Screen time is crowding out face time - research by Ofcom suggests that people in the UK spend half their waking hours looking at the screens of their TVs, computers and mobile phones.
All this is not necessarily a bad thing. If it works, people love not having to do things in person. When Nunwood recently ranked UK companies on customer experience, both the winner and the runner-up were firms that specifically avoid face-to-face contact: online retailer Amazon and the phone and internet bank First Direct.
But it would be wrong to conclude from the industry’s focus on shiny new techniques that face to face is a thing of the past. In fact qual and quant face-to-face methodologies were still bigger than either telephone or online in 2010, according to Esomar’s latest figures. Annual spending on face-to-face research amounted to $8.4bn, up from $6.4bn in 2006. Online methods may be growing more quickly, but they still remain smaller in revenue, at $7.5bn.
Nice to meet you
Who are the people standing up for face-to-face research in the digital age? Qual research veteran Roy Langmaid, who runs The Langmaid Practice, felt strongly enough to write a paper making the case for face-to-face research, which is to be published later this year in the International Journal of Market Research.
Langmaid is no Luddite – in fact he founded Promise, one of the leading proponents of online research and co-creation communities. Nor does he believe that any one research mode is better than any other. Rather, he argues that face-to-face qual research methods are not being used to their full potential because the process has become formulaic and unimaginative. He describes “90-minute focus groups with tight topic guides containing far too many questions about the product and far too few opportunities for people to share about their lives and the role of goods and services within them”.
This, he believes, leads to disillusionment with mainstream qual and an excessive enthusiasm for fresh approaches like behavioural economics and neuroscience which seek to “objectify” respondents. “Read any behavioural economics or neuropsychology texts and you will find interesting and exciting ideas,” writes Langmaid. “But you won’t meet any people there.” To explore his ideas further, Research had to meet him face to face.
“For me,” Langmaid said, “the core of qualitative research has always been authentic contact. No matter how well informed you might be, if you haven’t met people then what you think about them has an element of fantasy about it.”
Even sitting behind the mirror in a viewing facility is very different from being in the room with the participants in a group discussion, he says. “As soon as you see the attention that’s paid to the menu and the gossip and taking the piss out of the respondents, you see it’s not the same.”
Strangely, one area that Langmaid feels has harnessed “authentic contact” in a way that research sometimes fails to is reality TV. Granted, the authenticity of what makes it to the screen is usually doubtful, but shows that open a window into people’s everyday lives, or that rely on real relationships and interactions (however artificial the setting) have clearly captured the public imagination.
You had to be there
Like Langmaid, Firefish CEO Jem Fawcus finds it puzzling that behavioural economics has attracted quite so much attention in research. BE tells us that people are bad at articulating how they behave and why. No kidding, says Fawcus. “Qual researchers have had no choice but to believe that, because we sit and talk to people about how they behave, and you’d have to be blind and deaf not to see that what they say is only the tip of the iceberg of what they do.”
“There’s no substitute for sitting in a room with people to understand the rich context and layers of their reaction”
Jem Fawcus, Firefish
It’s obvious to Fawcus that sitting someone down in a room and asking them questions “will at best give you partial answers and at worst give you misleading ones”. But the value of face-to-face qual goes way beyond what people say out loud, he says. “There’s no substitute for sitting in a room with people to understand the rich context and layers of their reaction.”
Because of the importance of context and non-verbal communication “there’s no substitute for the research team being present face to face at the research,” says Fawcus. “That’s the ideal. Because you get a far richer understanding of what’s going on and you’re able to immerse yourself in the cultural context.”
Online qual methods have their uses and Firefish is no stranger to them. Video streaming with technology like FocusVision is handy, particularly for international projects, but researchers have to be careful not to get carried away and start seeing it as a replacement for being there. “It can add a lot,” says Fawcus. “It enables the client to keep track of the research without being there, but you have to be extremely aware of what it can and can’t do. It allows you to check that the topics that need to be covered are covered. What it can’t do is give you any more than a very superficial understanding of what actually happens in that group. As long as you understand that, it’s a valid tool to use.” Do researchers understand that? “Some do, some don’t.”
The clipboard brigade
Alongside qual, face-to-face quant research is also a multibillion pound business. A huge amount of social research, in particular, relies on the people still sometimes referred to as the clipboard brigade, although nowadays they’re more likely to be wielding a laptop or an iPad. Some work was abandoned amid the recent spending cuts (notably the Citizenship Survey), but important studies such as the British Crime Survey and the longitudinal Understanding Society survey involve face-to-face interviews with tens of thousands of people every year.
Jon Burton of the Institute for Social and Economic Research says face-to-face interviewers are crucial to the success of Understanding Society, which tracks long-term trends in health, personal finances, family life, work and political views among 40,000 households. “The interviewer doesn’t just collect information, they also persuade the sample member to become a respondent, they motivate them through the interview and they leave them feeling that they have made a valuable contribution,” said Burton. Interviewers become familiar faces, helping to build loyalty and in many cases proving to be “the difference between getting an interview and not”.
Understanding Society faces the particular challenge of interviewing all occupants in every home sampled, and Burton says face-to-face interviewers are best placed to negotiate and arrange this. An experiment in 2010 found that using phone interviews in the first instance, and visiting only those people who could not be reached by phone, resulted in more people refusing to take part. As it is, the response rate for Understanding Society is at a very respectable 70%, while the British Crime Survey gets around 76%.
Face-to-face research accounts for around half of the work done by Ipsos, the world’s third-largest research company, and the agency recently appointed Jane A’Court to the new role of director of global face-to-face programmes. It’s a pretty hectic job since, as A’Court points out, face-to-face research is “the only bit you can’t have a global hub for, because you have to be there on the ground”.
The big users of face to face in the UK, A’Court says, are clients “who need really robust representative samples – big media contracts and government social research”, while in emerging markets the appeal of face-to-face interviewing goes wider because of lower telephone and internet penetration rates.
The company has managed to hold face-to-face response rates steady over the past five years, but only by working harder to stem the decline. “You have to go back to people more times,” A’Court explains, “so it becomes more costly.” Despite this, and the fact that more than three quarters of homes in the UK now have internet access, we’re still “quite a long way” from being able to take face-to-face surveys online, and “the move to mixed methodologies will happen slowly”, she believes. Despite the technological alternatives it’s still hard to picture what could replace in-home interviewing in many cases. “I think there will always be some [face-to-face research] going on, at least for the next 20 years. If you’re doing work that’s going to contribute to government policy, I’m not sure there’s a better way.”
There’s also a pool of skilled and valuable people working in face-to-face research. “There are some amazing people out there - the people who work in face to face are some of the best people you can meet,”
Whether everyone recognises these strengths is another question. Jem Fawcus says that while there are plenty of big advocates of face to face in the older generation, younger researchers are less passionate about it, tending to be more excited about newer online methods. “I’m very conscious of where qual came from,” he says. “I wonder if in that next generation there’s as much understanding of the richness of the techniques we use. I don’t get the sense that that’s as well understood as it used to be.”
Faces from afar
Is technology reaching a point where it can provide a substitute for face-to-face contact? Maybe not, but it’s certainly edging closer. Technology startup Affectiva has developed a way to use webcams to read facial expressions and gauge emotion, and it now has the backing of ad research giant Millward Brown.
The firm demonstrated its technology by evaluating some of this year’s Super Bowl ads. Participants watched an ad over the internet while their webcam watched them back. The video is then analysed to identify the emotions expressed at various points in the ad (try for yourself at affectiva.com).
Facial expressions are, of course, just one aspect of what is missed when you don’t meet people in person, but according to Affectiva expressions are crucial to understanding the emotions behind our decisions.
Millward Brown has invested millions in the firm, and recently incorporated its facial expression analysis technology into its Link ad-testing product. The firm’s neuroscience boss Graham Page hopes the technology will help “get at the emotional response that people might not be able to articulate in surveys”.