Best practices for conducting qualitative research online.
We are living in the days of social distancing and isolation, and it might seem like qualitative research is out of reach. While we can’t gather around a focus group table or enter homes for deep-dive ethnography, we can connect with individuals and groups for rich qualitative insights using online and digital tools.
Despite these trying times, our team is having just as many impactful conversations with consumers about what’s important to them, while also acknowledging the unique and trying times of the moment – even if we’re all sitting on our couches.
As a result, the qualitative research team at Magid wants to share some of the ways that we’ve been conducting online qualitative research. Our company has been keeping an eye on the evolving COVID-19 situation and has developed a series of best practices to ensure that researchers are still able to provide consumer-led insights and guidance.
1. Respond with empathy: We’re all going through difficult times right now and it’s impossible to have any conversation with consumers without acknowledging that. As part of our process, we have begun to allow for a short introductory conversation that clears the air around the coronavirus but also asks consumers to be aware of potential impacts to their behaviors in this moment and try to talk around them as much as possible. In the words of Matthew McConaughey, this red light will eventually turn green, and we’ll be there soon enough.
2. Online focus group: As in-person focus groups are no longer an option, we’re applying best practices that we’ve developed over years of doing online focus groups to all of our online research. These include working with smaller groups for video/webcam-based groups (three-to-five instead of six-to-eight); developing and integrating more projective and lateral thinking exercises; and revising our screening materials to limit the number of technical interruptions. Depending on the research objectives, consider either webcam- or chat-based groups, both of which offer real-time moderation and discussion; a private (backroom) experience where observers can chat privately with each other and the moderator (with no participant interaction); and digital recordings of the conversation (transcripts optional).
3. Online IDIs: One of the major benefits of pivoting to online methodologies is the value gained from talking to consumers in their own homes, and nowhere is this more true than with a move toward online IDIs. The intimacy gained from conducting research in a comfortable and natural environment – including all the small interruptions like children wandering into frame – create a situation where accessing deeper and more personal emotions is far easier than in a conference room.
4. Online communities: One of the more popular and well-known online methodologies – the online community – is still as relevant as before, with the added benefit of increased engagement as participants spend more time communicating through digital means. As we’re already seeing through work we’re doing today, consumers want to connect with other people no matter what form that takes, increasing not only the reliability of engagement but also the quality and willingness to dig deep.
5. Usability testing: Traditional usability research is still very possible online by giving access to prototypes, sharing screens or, as needed, shipping test devices and recording equipment to participants. This may add some nominal expense to a project, but it offers the added benefit of true in-situ responses, something that isn’t possible in a focus group facility.
6. Digital ethnographies: We’ve shifted toward more intensive digital ethnographic research as well – eschewing in-homes for online diaries or digital missions focused on participants capturing their own video. As most online diary platforms have a mobile component – either through an app or mobile-focused website – consumers are better equipped than ever to not only give us a view into their world but also naturally capture their behaviors.
7. New opportunities online: Beyond just taking traditional methodologies online, we also have been piloting new ways to leverage online tools to interact with consumers. Researchers can consider not only using online discussion platforms to replicate traditional in-person activities, but also fresh and exciting ways of capturing consumer thoughts, such as annotating images or videos; capturing short video responses to questions; providing in-platform polls; or even capturing screens while participants use their devices.
8. Combined methodologies: Another opportunity with online qualitative is the ability to merge different methodologies to answer questions more effectively, such as: having participants actively record behaviors during a two-to-three day online diary before then having small virtual group discussion; hosting an online community with 30-50 participants that is winnowed down to a more detailed video discussion with a smaller subset of the audience; or integrating 1:1 video interviews with participants through online platforms.
9. Expanded audiences: We’re all getting a little tired of home right? Online methodologies allow researchers to speak to a wider audience – from tech-forward consumers in the Bay Area to more rural shoppers in Nebraska. As a result, we’re able to fine-tune our recruitment to ensure that we’re connecting with the right people.
10. Stimulus development: One of the major challenges with using online methodologies can be stimulus development and use, especially when it comes to security. Develop stimulus that not only gets you the answers you need, but also is less vulnerable to leaks – removing specific brand elements, presentation that doesn’t allow users to capture materials or using significant blinding that throws consumers off the trail of who is sponsoring the work. Even in cases where elements like brand are entirely removed from stimulus, look for experts that have experience providing analysis that delivers valuable insight.
11. International fieldwork: Just because we can’t get on a plane, doesn’t mean researchers can’t talk to people around the world. Look for partners who are able to provide you with fieldwork support and moderation in different markets and online platforms that support live translation for non-native speakers.
12. Client access: As working from home becomes the new norm (for now), online methodologies provide extended access to teams. You can invite more people than could fit in a traditional backroom to view the research live and have discussions. Be sure to include training and provide tutorials so your team knows how to access all available tools.
As we all adapt to today’s work environment, consumers will still have valuable opinions that aren’t limited to how they’re living their lives. Don’t miss out on qualitative research’s ability to facilitate powerful conversations just because we can’t all sit around a table together.