OPINION26 May 2020

Now is not the time for silence

Opinion Technology UK Video

There has never been a greater need for qualitative research to ensure people’s voices are heard, says Lorien Perryfrost, sharing her tips for online methods.

Voice of the customer_crop

Society has been confronted with a new reality. The Covid-19 lockdown has caused ongoing disruption to peoples’ lives – physically, economically, socially and psychologically.

Cultural psychiatrist Charles Johnston said that the pandemic calls for a maturing of human skills; as a society we need to become comfortable making decisions in a time of real uncertainty. 

These times are challenging. These times demand new routines from everyone. And yet they provide a unique opportunity for reflection and re-evaluation.  

At a time when much communication from brands and governments has been top down, qualitative research provides the crucial opportunity for people, customers and employees to have their voices heard – telling us about their experiences, hopes, fears and priorities in their own words.

We know that many clients are transitioning to online qual for the first time. Below is a whistle stop tour of some online qualitative approaches and some tips for successful delivery.

Pop-up communities

How participants take part: People log into an online platform at a time that works best for them to answer a daily short set of questions and/or complete tasks.  

Great for: Diary-based activities – people can tell researchers what they think, feel and do in detail. Pop-up communities are also ideal for collecting feedback on products that have been tested in-situ and for researching audiences with tricky schedules. 


  1. Because pop-up communities don’t involve a ‘live’ discussion, it’s important to keep in regular contact with participants and to acknowledge their contribution throughout the project to keep them engaged and feeling part of a community
  2. It’s easy to underestimate the time needed at the back end of a pop up. With each person contributing around 30 minutes of content per day, it’s important that enough time is blocked out to do the analysis justice.  

Online focus groups

There are two types of online focus group - text based and video enabled – both of which bring people together in a ‘live’ setting but offer very different experiences. 

Text-based online focus group

How people take part: People type their responses to questions asked by the moderator, also in text form. Text, image, video can be shown on whiteboards and interactive activities can be incorporated throughout.

Great for: Sensitive research. Because participants don’t need a video or microphone to take part, it makes them especially suitable for researching controversial topics as the anonymous setting encourages open and honest conversation.   


  1. People will type at different speeds. As the moderator, you set the pace of the group and it’s important that you balance keeping the majority engaged while supporting those who need to catch up. Aiming questions directly to individual participants and using phrases like ‘If you’re still typing, please finish your answer before moving on’ helps manage participants’ experiences and expectations 
  2. Participants type their responses simultaneously in a text-based group, meaning that there is a lot for the moderator to process at any one given time. Having a second pair of eyes in the form of an assistant moderator is always valuable. They can also be on hand to help iron out tech issues and answer questions any observing clients may have
  3. Keep an element of flexibility in the discussions. Many platforms allow discussion guides to be pre-populated into the software but this functionality should be used with care. Instead, probe responsively and adapt questioning to what’s being generated by the group. 

Video-enabled online focus groups 

How people take part: Five or six people take part in a live chat using a video and microphone.  

Great for: Seeing ‘the whites of people’s’ eyes’ when a face-to-face approach isn’t a viable option. By picking up on non-verbal cues, skilled moderators can also understand the emotional and behavioural context of responses, too.


  1. Keep group sizes manageable. As conversations happen in serial, the flow of the discussion is slower. It’s important to allow time for everyone to have their voice heard throughout the focus group as this will create a positive research experience
  2. Set the rules of engagement up front. Knowing how or when to contribute isn’t always clear. Outlining expectations at the start of the group will give you ‘permission’ to effectively manage the session later on.

Our own research at Opinium has shown that now is not the time for silence. It’s important that two-way conversations are kept flowing. With face-to-face qual not currently an option, these vital discussions need to transfer online.

Lorien Perryfrost is a senior qualitative research manager at Opinium