What Now for Qualitative Research?

What Now for Qualitative Research?

By Pamela Green

May 2020

What does the future look like for qualitative research?


The global pandemic that is COVID-19 means the vast majority of people are now experiencing a forced “at home” lockdown which will last for weeks if not months. Staying home is absolutely necessary if we are to defeat the COVID virus BUT they put serious pressure on our abilities to socialise with each other and to connect face to face – which is what humans are all about! We’re inherently a social species. 

Qualitative research has historically – and for good reason – been all about tapping into that social “gathering” instinct, and has its roots in close up, face to face contact. In fact, I am well known for banging on that the best form of qual is when “you can see the whites of customers’ eyes!”. Qual is all about a human, person to person level connection – being in the same space as customers, sitting with them in the same room, sharing information and images with them, seeing how they react, respond and deliberate. It’s all about watching and analysing non-verbal cues as well as listening carefully to what is said (and not said), and all of this demands being physically close together.

But the times they are a’ changing (as someone once said!) and we need to ensure our industry survives both during and after this dreadful pandemic in a way that is sustainable from both a health and business perspective, as I cannot see things returning to “normal” any time soon – in fact if ever. 

Given this extraordinary situation, we at Insight Leaders have put our heads together and have been thinking and talking about how to get through the current lockdown, and what qual may look like in the future.

For the “now” if brands and clients still need or want to do research, there are myriad technologies available which will enable us to do a lot of our work online or remotely. 

Fellow IL’er, pluralthinker and research guru Brett Templeton has shared his experiences of what’s been working for him so far.

He says: “Blogs are a great methodology in these times; we have a super platform for that, and respondents are giving the tasks more attention than before (they are glad of something to do and grateful for the incentive). In fact, we’ve had some folks quite emotional about how pleasing it is to be doing something ‘normal’ to take their mind off things. It reminds them that life will return – so we shouldn’t be shy about carrying on; people are grateful for it.  

We’ve also conducted some online groups with mixed success. We’re learned that it works best if you: 

  • Reduce it to a quad or triad, so you can develop more of a rapport (you’ll need to double up, so make them shorter and the cost in time won’t be that much greater). We’re selling two quads for the price of a F2F group. 
  • Give them homework before the group; some topics to think about; they’ll be diligent in doing it and it means they come to the online group with things they actively want to say
  • The ‘forming’ period needs to be longer – they really need to settle in. 
  • It’s best if the moderator turns their camera off for periods; this seems counter-intuitive, but it means that your big face isn’t dominating their screen and they give more attention to each other. 
  • Keep it to absolute max 1.5 hours; our best one so far was 1hr 15 mins – allowing 15 mins of ‘forming’ and a good productive hour of ‘performing’.”

The online Blog methodology seems to have real benefits, even offering people an escape from the situation they find themselves in, and as Brett has mentioned, creating valuable homework tasks can be a huge benefit to methodologies as they get people to start thinking about the issues before they even log on.

Another respected IL’er, Kate Halliday of Puffin Research also shared her success with homework pre tasks for online groups; Kate says “I’ve run online research with a mix of audiences, from hard to reach young adults, to pet owners through to cruisers and yes, asking people to share homework ahead of discussions is a great way to increase engagement and enthusiasm.  It also provides really useful insights into how people are feeling ahead of the groups which can be used as extra discussion prompts within the sessions themselves . . . and great visual theatre to pop into the debrief!”.

That said, there is a genuine question about the appropriateness – and therefore value – of  doing any research whilst we’re in the midst of a global pandemic; people are finding themselves in an extraordinary situation and their concerns and considerations may well not be about brands and advertising, but more likely how they will get their shopping in, how their work has been affected and how they can home school their kids. 

The highly experienced IL’er Matt Kirby of Bobs Your Uncle noted “The problem at the moment is that the strength of online/mobile is getting experiences from real occasions in normal life … but no one is leading a normal life now and won’t do for several months. So, unless we are exploring the impact of Covid-19 it might be that online methods are still not right (or even tone deaf/distasteful).”

So, should we stop researching using ANY method until it’s all over? On the one hand yes – we’re living in extraordinary times and as such there is a big risk of getting extraordinary data; on the other no – if we stop completely, we risk losing touch with the customer. And brands need to know how their customer is adjusting and evolving as this crisis continues. 

Remote methodologies really are the only way to engage with customers right now, and as such we need to be absolutely sure they are fit for purpose and deliver the quality of insight we need.

However, once this is over – and it WILL end – we need to find a balance and seek a ‘new normal’ to find more “socially appropriate” ways of achieving the insights that brands need. It feels that once we begin to see light at the end of the tunnel, the remote / online qual methods outlined may well be the best ways in which to begin to take the first tentative steps out of the research darkness as they offer safe spaces and have shown past success; but what about the future of face to face qual as we know it? 

The research industry has a responsibility to keep people safe and ensure they are comfortable in research – and whilst Germany is opening research facilities on the 4th May (under the very strict legislation protecting respondents, clients and researchers) it is possible it will be a very long time before people will feel completely happy being in close social contact with a bunch of strangers. We know that a large number of consumers are becoming more and more familiar and comfortable with video and online conferencing during this crisis, so there will likely be a new acceptance of the medium of online research.  Not quite the living room or viewing facility but perhaps not as strange and alien as it used to be. 

Kate Halliday makes these valuable suggestions “It’s really important to think about what we want to create within the online sessions themselves.  Let’s think about groups, the natural interactive dynamics created when people meet face to face in a room just don’t exist.  We’re all dialling in from our own isolated spaces, looking at individual portrait heads at best, lacking the natural stimulus for animated discussion and the seamless feeding off each other’s ideas that comes with physical proximity.  Just think how differently the online formats of ‘Have I Got News for You’ or ‘The Graham Norton Show’ feel with guests dialling in and no audiences to bounce off.  So, as well as the individual sharing of views, we find it really useful to create situations, through using tools, that allow for the collective expressing of ideas during discussions. The key is to find ways to help people feel less ‘naked’ and more confident in sharing their inner thoughts in this strange environment . . . to bond more easily as group and feel part of a bigger whole”

 But despite all this we cannot ignore the fact that qualitative research was “invented” to be conducted face to face (I’d love to see Bill Schlackman or Ernest Dichter doing online groups!) as there is SO much nuance that can be missed when online or on Skype etc; so much of what ISN’T said is often very valuable to developing insight, and the silences and body language changes are best observed “for real” not online. That’s where good qual has its greatest value. 

And the face to face aspect is a particularly thorny issue for international qualitative research. Matt Kirby again – “The act of travelling to observe f2f research in other markets adds to understanding in ways that are not always directly related to watching the groups and doing an analysis session. Insights are gathered when researchers visit outlets relevant to the category, or notice something interesting in the street or a cafe, as well as the off-the-cuff remarks of the translator and the nuances revealed in all the ongoing side chats with the local partner. The benefit of the lead researcher travelling to the markets will likely be harder to sell in future. Mixing mobile ethnography with remote f2f can help fill in some of these gaps (if relevant to the project) … but if qual researchers stop travelling altogether then the reality is that the quality of international research will decrease”

So, where do we go from here?  

It strikes us at IL that there will likely be growing usage of a mix of methodologies when it comes to local qual. 

The future is likely to demand a suite of methods to deliver the best results – a mix of blogging, mobile ethnography or web streaming with smaller, quicker (maybe just 1 hour?) F2F groups of far fewer respondents (maybe 4 or 5?) so we can all maintain a decent social distance (no more cramming 7-10 people in a room) and minimise the time spent together?

We may see the rise of paired depth / triad methodologies and see more attention given to the way in which to best use these smaller, but no less dynamic options in a more cost effective way?

There’s a whole other paper to be written for international research but we need to think about how to preserve the best quality whilst being mindful of the reality of the current world order. 

Or are we over thinking this? Will people come out of this, blinking slowly into the sunlight and suddenly realise they have a burning desire to sit in a room with 6 strangers and a plate of sandwiches, talking in depth about their needs, hopes and frustrations when buying tea?