Back to the Future - What does our increasing use of online techniques mean for the future of qual?
Updated: May 25
A lot (possibly too much!) has been written already about how the world of work will evolve as the world emerges from their Zoom or Teams-based cocoons. As ever in a world increasingly fueled by clicks, much of the debate seems to have been characterised by extremes.
On one side, we have the Dickensian persona of Jacob Rees Mogg, leaving notes on absent desks and on the other we have a a long line influencers at pains to point out that work that a physical office is a thing of the past. As with most things. the answer inevitably lies somewhere between these poles and most businesses appear to be accepting that a hybrid model is increasingly looking like the post-Covid norm.
But what about research? Off the back of the MRS Conference, Peter Totman tried again to kickstart what is a really important debate for our industry. As with the working world more generally, there are undoubted pros and cons on either side.
From my perspective, as we’ve all become more comfortable with Zoom etc, the shift to online research has provided a voice to parts of the UK where previously moderators very rarely reached often due to constraints of time or money. It has also enabled more efficient recruitment of customer groups (e.g. from client lists) without the constraints of having to recruit to a central location. It appears it's not just customers who have seen this as more convenient - I’ve also seen greater client participation in groups when they know it's possible to watch from the comfort of their own home.
The benefits don’t stop at logistics or convenience of course. Asynchronous techniques such as communities have opened up a whole new set of possibilities, particularly when assessing concepts or when looking at a brand’s digital experience e.g. screen recording techniques. Even in traditional online groups, the ability to ‘pop something up on screen’ allows the moderator a huge amount of flexibility provided the client is trusting enough to allow them to head off-piste occasionally rather than rigidly following the topic guide by rote.
Yet for all these plus points, we would be as foolish as Rees Mogg and his desk notes if we thought it right to consign face to face qual to the scrap heap forever. As I’ve increasingly been out and about again over the past couple of months, it’s impossible to ignore that there is something about the human connection in a group which it’s still hard to replicate online. Non-verbal cues are easier to spot face to face and groups feel more free-flowing vs. the ‘hub and spoke’ moderation typically required in online groups to prevent participants talking over each other.
There is a temptation of course that, from a client perspective, the time and cost benefits (particularly for international research) will increasingly push online groups to be the norm. It's not just clients - agencies may well be tempted to go along for the ride here as the work/life balance benefits make it easier to retain quallies, particularly those struggling to balance family commitments.
Yet, one of the biggest eye openers for me since being 'back on the road' has been that there is as much to learn on the journey to the venue and simply being in a community as in the groups themselves. I’ve had the privilege of researching very different communities and their use of broadband services (both in rural Norfolk and social housing estates in Peckham) over the past six weeks. Even with the most carefully designed pre-tasks, it’s impossible to get a true flavour for the area you’re researching without experiencing it first-hand.
There is also an energy about face to face groups / workshops which it’s almost impossible to replicate in an online setting. I ran a segmentation workshop last week for about 35 people. On the face of it, it should have represented everything which we’ve come to despise about our ‘old’ working lives; a slog round the M25 in the car, an overnight stay in a soulless hotel on a business park and precious time away from my wife, kids and four-legged friend. Yet I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. The energy in the room, the commitment to the session and, as a result, the quality of the ideas generated just would not have been possible online, I believe. What's more, we were able to create a memorability to the personas through that shared experience. One of the attendees even e-mailed the following day to say they had already been able to adapt their approach to a customer call based on what they’d learnt in the session.
In some ways I’m glad that, as a truly mixed-method researcher, I feel I’ve been down this road before. Whilst the qual research sector is only now truly grappling with the impact of online methods, the quanties across the floor have experienced many of the same challenges before and could share many of the potential pitfalls.
When quant surveys first moved online, the biggest mistake we all made was simply to assume we could move the old world approach of CATI or face to face onto an online survey. At the outset it led to a plethora of poorly designed and lengthy surveys, notwithstanding the challenges around data quality and integrity which still remain a challenge today. Having been a client at the time, it also led to conversations dominated by price and speed rather than around value – agencies would constantly talk about the price benefits of shifting online rather than the additional capability an online survey could bring. Fast forward ten years and we're bemoaning commoditisation of research! 🙄
It's important therefore that we don’t end up in similarly binary debates about online vs. face to face in the qualitative arena and that we focus on using the right tool for the right job. I’m increasingly finding that embracing the benefits both approaches can bring leads to a much richer outcome for clients and a better experience for participants. What better way for example to ensure a set of engaged participants for a customer closeness workshop for example than having them participate in a short online community before they attend?
However, it's critical that we don't fall into the trap of commoditising qualitative research. The intangible benefits of face to face research e.g. spending time immersing yourself in a target audience are often the things which can often have the greatest impact at a debrief – those small anecdotes or nuggets which help convince a decision maker on the right course of direction. We must also remember that the elements which clients place most value on (the design of the sessions, the analysis of the output etc) are no less time consuming or complex irrespective of whether the fieldwork was conducted online or in a viewing facility.
I’ve no doubt that this debate is one which will become a recurring theme in research conferences moving forward but we need to ensure this debate is focused on embracing the best that both worlds can bring rather than distilling it down to a simplistic binary choice or, worse still, focusing on cost/ time rather than the real value we deliver…