The right place, the right time
There are many potential advantages to taking your qual research online. But how do you decide when it’s the right approach and when it’s best to stick to offline methods?
Online research suppliers are telling us it’s quicker, cheaper and more convenient to take our qualitative research online – and that it’s just as flexible and useful as in-person. Online qual is certainly established in the US, where travelling distances and a history of more straightforward focus group research make it an ideal methodology. And while online focus groups are often the first method tried out online, there is so much more to add to the researcher’s toolbox. No wonder qualitative researchers and clients are asking themselves whether it will really work, whether it will really save them money and what sort of things they can use it for.
“The challenge for qualitative researchers is to take the lead in understanding and working with online methodologies creatively and appropriately”
The easiest comparison to make of online qual is with standard focus groups. Online there are no travel costs, no viewing facility fees and, with instant transcripts, it seems to make sense that it’s faster and cheaper. However, it’s wise to hire a professional platform for the research; you may end up doing more detailed preparation of the questions and exercises beforehand, and you may end up with much more data to analyse. And you still have to recruit, incentivise and so on. So it depends on the project. If you are researching in-home, not travelling far and used to providing topline debriefs at speed, there is less of a difference in the cost and time. If it’s an international project, that’s different.
But costing is something you can work out with a few phone calls – more significant is the question of appropriateness. It’s hard to imagine that individuals typing at computers can replicate the energy and creativity of a face-to-face group.
Choosing the right method isn’t just about cost and convenience; it’s about setting up a working relationship with the respondents that will generate the type of information you are looking for. Taking focus groups as the archetype of qualitative research - when is it good to take them online and when could it be a disaster?
Focus groups are not created equal. It was Mary Goodyear who first named two distinct approaches – and although the terms are not in common usage, the methods are. Goodyear’s ‘cognitive’ approach uses pre-defined topics which are explored in a relatively structured way, and the outputs are largely taken at face value. The client observers feel they know the answer once the groups are over.
This is ‘qual lite’, the classic focus group. Here, qualitative research is being used for its flexibility and open-endedness rather than for its depth. Projects where this might be useful include those designed to determine preferences or initial views on a new design, or to prioritise factors in decision-making. The questions are straightforward and groups are chosen because they are more convenient and cost-effective than depth interviews – the group interaction is just something to be managed and kept under control.
Qual lite works well online
For qual lite, don’t hesitate to go to online focus groups, if your sample is confident in that environment and there are no practical prohibitions. You’ll get all the spontaneous reactions, comments and evaluations you need. You can show images and videos, do simple mapping and projective exercises – and you will get less ‘groupthink’. Everyone types their answers simultaneously and there is the online disinhibition effect. Respondents can’t see the reactions of others; they feel less judged and more anonymous, so it’s easier to give their own views.
As a moderator you can upload detailed questions in advance, prepare visual exercises to keep them engaged and get an immediate transcript. Chat groups are most common as there are fewer technical issues, and you can probe, although you will have less of a sense of knowing the individuals and how the group interacts and influence each other. For more open discussion don’t overload the guide with questions – it takes longer to type answers, so online groups tend to cover less. It’s harder for respondents to spontaneously interact with each other and there is anecdotal evidence they can be updating their Facebook status or nipping off to check on the baby while maintaining a presence in the group. Platforms offer tools to monitor participation levels as well as polls – a more sophisticated equivalent of a show of hands in a focus group.
In-depth understanding requires an in-person connection
The other approach Goodyear called ‘conative’. This is the in-depth group discussion model of qual. Its primary objective is to get an understanding of a topic or issue in the respondent’s own terms. Interviews are much less structured and the data is treated as requiring analysis and interpretation. What participants say, along with aspects of interaction and group process, is examined for its ‘connotation’ and not just for its literal meaning or face value.
Here the questions will be lateral and emergent – so they can’t all be predicted and uploaded beforehand. Emotional understanding of the group is key - looking for defensiveness or eagerness, lack of congruence or engagement, gently challenging surface rationalisations and noticing what is not being said.
All of this requires emotional contagion in the room (being able to feel what others feel, the ability to read a mood) and sensory acuity, taking into account the tiny physical changes that occur in a person’s face and body signalling a change of mindset. Chat won’t do it; even webcams won’t do it, for that sort of ‘in the moment’ work you have to be physically in the room. Add to that the value of being in the physical and social context seeing how people dress, where they live and shop and socialise, provides invaluable understanding of the stories they tell and the way in which they tell them.
Most projects can be a mixture of the two approaches. Many start with a straightforward review of what is largely known, as a warm-up, but researchers will recognise the projects when it’s likely that rationalisations not reasons will be doing the talking; when there is a large element of researcher judgment as to which route will be more motivating; when respondents themselves hold conflicting views that need to be made sense of.
Focus groups are only the start
Bulletin board focus groups, which don’t require all the participants to be there at once, address many of the issues of online focus groups. They can use a more Facebook-style interface, but include video questions and answers, an interactive whiteboard and other rich media, which help in exploring emotional and behavioural issues. Respondents can take part when it’s convenient for them and there is plenty of potential for both tasks and reflection.
Bulletin board groups can be short or they can last for weeks or months. They offer a chance to get to know participants more slowly, and as trust builds up they can be integrated with face-to-face for a really powerful insight tool. Keeping respondents motivated until the end can be a challenge, as is the sheer volume of data they generate.
The online disinhibition effect leads to more candour even without a safe and trusting relationship, so if you feel that anonymity is desirable in a project – for example when conducting employee research or tackling a sensitive subject – that’s another good reason to go online. But remember the online medium can encourage multiple presentations of the self, so you need to be clear which one you want to talk to.
A holistic view
Qualitative research isn’t just about lite or deep, it also needs to be ethnographic, longitudinal, behavioural, social and cultural. The real strength and value of online qual lie in adding methods that would be very difficult or expensive to deploy offline. Social media monitoring brings qualitative insights almost as they happen. Bulletin boards can host online video diaries or journals, or become the medium for immersive research, using mobiles or webcams to capture situations and behaviour that is then reflected on.
Concept optimisation can be integrated into quantitative studies or form part of an overall programme including online, in-person and mobile. Or it can just be used alone. Why spend an hour and a half in a focus group when you really only need reactions to two concepts?
Netnography promises an unfiltered, naturalistic, culturally descriptive and consumer-focused perspective. Clients who are prepared to invest time and money in an online community reap both qual and quant information, ongoing customer feedback, ideation, product development and testing.
There are challenges ahead. Netnography faces ethical issues, forums and communities have recruitment, participation and motivation issues and anything online has technical issues, even in developed countries. But the real challenge is for qualitative researchers to take the lead in understanding and working with online methodologies creatively and appropriately, while also maintaining the value, skill and integrity of in-depth and in-person qualitative research.
Joanna Chrzanowska conducts training in qualitative methods, both in person and online. She has published a book on interviewing and runs the training support website qualitativemind.com. She is a fellow of the Market Research Society