OPINION29 July 2020

How will qualitative research change after Covid-19?

Covid-19 Opinion UK

How can face-to-face research adapt to a world of video calls and social distancing? Carol McNaughton Nicholls considers the implications for researchers.


Mural, Miro, HowSpace, Recollective, Incling, Crowdlab, and on and on. No insight professional doing research during lockdown could have failed to have been exposed to a plethora of online platforms, not to mention the ubiquitous adoption of Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Many of these are not new, and some have been used for years.

However, the central role these platforms suddenly took, often for research that would previously have been conducted face-to-face, undoubtedly created both challenges and opportunities.

The speed of change added to the task. It isn’t possible to just transpose face-to-face interactions online. These are different creatures and should be treated as such – both with value and beauty in distinct ways. It is a skill to know how to design an optimal online user experience, to ask questions and perform tasks in new ways to obtain the right data, and ultimately deliver the strongest outputs from online interactions.

For some, this may have been a steep learning curve – for others, who already use many digital platforms, it has been business as usual but with speeded-up, creative twists as we adapted to a new context.

It has also been a learning curve for participants. One great benefit to come out of this is the enhanced willingness to engage with new platforms and ways of taking part in research among respondents. Everyone has been adapting, and I think we will enter a new era of research where respondents may be more willing – and indeed actively request – to take part online rather than face-to-face. Clearly there is a huge convenience factor for respondents, and no longer physically attending groups but participating from home creates an ease of participation.

This has also opened up the ability to have greater diversity, in terms of geographical locations, for example, within single groups. It doesn’t spell the end of face-to-face research – of course there will remain a place for it and a need to ensure those who are less digitally engaged are represented.

As we leave lockdown and tentatively begin to return to workplaces and public transport there may also be a desire from respondents to weave research participation into their daily routines out of the home, and a higher value put on face-to-face interactions, particularly for research focusing on sensitive issues or with complex ideas to explore.

The industry has also become even more open to trialling new approaches – necessity is the mother of invention after all. We will not leave behind the knowledge that we can create brilliant online research and engagement processes through something akin to bricolage. Rather than striving for solutionism – one platform to rule them all – I have found a creative mix is more effective and efficient, both for building rapport and engagement with respondents and truly understanding their lives in ways that address clients’ most strategic challenges.

Some platforms that have not been designed for research per se can provide additional nuances for online interactions. For example, blending video calls, with app-based ethnography and online deliberation on whiteboards. Using multiple touchpoints and ways of engaging respondents to keep it interesting and avoid screen fatigue, for richer and deeper interactions across an online research ‘journey’. This creative blend won’t disappear either.

So, it is likely most new-to-us platforms and ways of working will be taken forward into the future and there will be a continuing increase in online methods. Through all of this, we have seen how great technology can be for keeping people connected and indeed enabling our qualitative research and engagement to go on and thrive.

It is important not to begin to think a platform is ‘the answer’ – many platforms have been marvellous partners and tools that have kept our research going strong. But they are tools. How effectively they are deployed still comes down to the creativity and skillset of the professionals using them to get to those human insights.

As we move forward and online research continues, if anything it is going to be the ‘human touch’ in design, moderation and analysis that becomes ever more important, as people crave those connections beyond a screen. That human touch is something we cannot and will not leave behind in quality qualitative research and engagement.

Dr Carol McNaughton Nicholls is associate partner at BritainThinks.

1 Comment

4 years ago

Great piece, Carol, thanks. You may be interested to read my own reflections on the implications of the growth in real-time video research for face-to-face qual in this article, in which my conclusions are similar to yours: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/does-rise-remote-video-interviewing-mean-its-over-group-graham-booth/

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