Digital Qualitative Research – Getting close from a distance!

Posted on 14th May 2020 by Berlin in Uncategorized

Qualitative research is currently undergoing rapid transformation, possibly a lasting sea-change: due to the coronavirus pandemic, qual is going online. Fast – and big-time.

Tasks and projects that just a few months ago would have been automatically done Face-to-Face are now carried out digitally – co-creation and innovation tasks? No problem, work online. It’s a fascinating situation.

An example maybe of an accelerated if somewhat surprising learning curve? Or more of a needs-must, opportunistic U-turn, with necessity as ever the mother of invention?
It wasn’t long ago that many in the qual community regarded digital options with suspicion 😉

Fast-forward to now: Current experience indicates that digital approaches not just work well, and for more types of tasks than had been imagined, but actually allow for a different type of empathy.
Distance – somewhat paradoxically – allows for a new type of consumer closeness. It certainly opens up a new world of moderation and interaction dynamics.

Sven Arn and Edward Appleton share in two articles their experiences from the past few weeks and months during the coronavirus pandemic, describing what has changed in the world of qual, and what that means for likely future practice.

Fast-forward qual: from digital first to digital only

Digital is by no means new for today’s qualitative researchers – think MROCs or mobile ethnographies. H/T/P launched its first online community more than 13 years ago, mobile ethnographies have been with us for a least 6 or 7 years.
Nor is it a neglected area. Many qual agencies have become expert at embracing new digital options, working with a skillful blend of digital and analogue tools, using the interplay according to the task and situation.

On the analogue side, focus groups – often regarded as dull, and in certain areas moribund – have proved remarkably resilient. Their life cycle has likely been extended by digital plug-ins and pre-tasks, giving them new zip and freshness.

More recent digital innovation efforts have, however, been on agility and scalability, less on the fundamental expansion of capabilities.

Working ever more with larger data sets, many qual agencies have looked to integrate automation tools into existing software to help sort and structure in numerous languages, allowing researchers to highlight deep-dive moments quicker, get to toplines faster.

The coronavirus has radically changed this “business-as-usual” set-up. But it was actually preceded by the growing environmental sensitivity that emerged strongly in 2019.

With #fridaysforfuture kids asking their marketing/ research parents about their eco-business travel credentials, increasing numbers of clients started asking: Why travel by plane and worsen your company’s eco-footprint when digital works well, is carbon-neutral and offers great value for money?

As a result, H/T/P and no doubt many other agencies explored new ways of using screen-to-screen. The pace was relaxed rather than urgent, if we’re honest – with validation ambitions to the fore, and a sense of test-and-prove scrupulousness.

Existential wake-up call

Covid-19 changed the call-to-digital-action dynamics swiftly– acting like an existential kick up the seat of the pants.
Suddenly, F2F was off the table.

RFPs continued to arrive on virtual home office desks, however – spanning a broad range of categories and from across the globe, involving more familiar formats such as screen-to-screen groups, digital depths.
The types of briefs have been strategic as well as tactical – including foundational studies, new packaging or product tests, strategic brand and positioning tasks, even specific requests for workshops, co-creation and full-blown innovation processes.

The resulting learning curve has been steep – and ongoing. It’s been a journey full of surprises as to what contemporary software tools can offer, and what works how in practice.

What we can currently say with a degree of confidence: Digital qualitative does work very well. But differently.

Our learnings about what that “different” means are structured into two:

  • Part 1 – the “online qual basics”, what does it take for moderators to approach eliciting digital empathy with confidence?
  • Part 2 – advanced digital qual solutions. Co-creation, concept workshops and more: how they work, what set-ups are needed, what process changes needed.

We report as objectively and honestly as possible.


Digital qual – the new ground rules

Zoom, Adobe Connect…there are plenty of software platforms for online qual research available, together with online tutorials taking you through the functionalities and features.

Reports on the feedback from qual practitioners, their reviews, are less common – how the tools work in practice. Here’s an excerpt from what H/T/P moderators have learned so far:

Online qual can deliver on virtually all briefs

It’s maybe natural to think that online qual is really only suited for straightforward briefs such as concept and communication pre-tests. Protocols are very structured, linear, and outputs are invariably to-the-point, less exploratory in nature.
We learned quite fast that when designed properly, online qual is great for more complex tasks – including insight generation, ethnographies, but covering the whole range of what qual has up-to-now been tasked with. It works well across geographies.

It can even open up your eyes to new approaches, which we will explore in the second part of this series.

What is important is that in order to achieve the same level of depth and breadth as F2F, designing online qual projects needs a combination of approaches or phases, such as a pre-task mobile ethnography followed by screen-to-screen mini-groups.

In a 100% digital environment, it’s normally not enough to “just do a couple of groups” – unless the task in hand is really very straightforward.

Different sense of time and space

Online qual operates to a different time and space rhythm.
Screen-to-screen groups frankly work better with fewer participants and with shorter sessions than we would expect in a F2F setting.

In-depths work well, as do triads. Screen-to-screen groups work best with 4 – 6 participants to allow for a valuable group dynamic, and one that the moderator can work well with.
Limiting session length is also beneficial – 60 – 90 minutes work well – to make the most of people’s attention spans.

Digital distractions need to be anticipated, even if they can’t be completely avoided – such as participants multi-tasking during the session, indulging in off-brief chats, messaging, checking their Instagram timelines or even flicking through YouTube.

The moderator needs to be on top of this – more later.

Expect…. the

The backdrop to a digital qual session is invariably somebody’s home. Asking participants to find a quiet place that is undisturbed is important – but it still can’t prevent people and things happening in the background.
Expectation management is important to ensure levity – that clients aren’t surprised/irritated when kids and pets are suddenly part of the discussion, or people need to rescue a pan of water in the kitchen that’s just boiled over.
Or the internet connection suddenly breaks down. Webcams fading to blank is not a good moment.

The new tech-qual-axis

Getting all the technical aspects sorted and working prior to anything happening is critical for online insight generation.
Interruptions during sessions are the Enemy Nr. 1 of digital empathy build, and often difficult to recover from, even with the best remote IT folk standing by.

Time-lines need to be adjusted: building in phases for practice sessions, introducing participants to a software and its key features, checking for stable internet presence, mute functions, volume and of course picture quality. That stretches to lighting, camera angles and more.

Planning for this starts well before the go-live phase. Taking things like technical equipment, access to a quiet space etc. into account is something that needs to start during recruitment.

Different group dynamics

Qualitative exchanges are different digitally, in our experience, there’s a different dynamic.
Moderators need to anticipate and avoid sessions becoming Q & A formats between moderators and individuals.

This is remedied partly by having smaller, more intimate groups of 4 – 6 people. Allocating tasks also helps – asking people to work on something creative in a small break-out session, possibly involving a digital whiteboard, or a brand mapping exercise for example.

Moderating differently

Online moderation is a different task to offline – there’s much more need to give a clear flow of what will be discussed, with a clear overall structure. Participants have to be extremely clear on what’s expected of them.
As a moderator, you need to work harder to create empathy in the absence of any body-language.

Your face needs to be more expressive – overall facial expression, your smile, how you engage in eye-contact, looking directly into the camera for example rather than at the screen.

Being mindful of timing is also much more important – the group impact of someone in a digital group who talks non-stop is higher than F2F.

Making sure participants don’t use virtual backdrops for more than a few playful seconds is also something to bear in mind.
Clients are appreciative of whatever ethnographic elements they can glean from a real-life environment – swaying palm trees on a beach are less helpful.

Seamless integration of ethnographic elements

One of the major advantages of digital qual is that they happen in participants’ own surroundings. In a way, they’re more natural.

Memory gaps are easily avoided. Rather than trying to remember which lipstick or cosmetic brands they have, or what’s in their fridge, participants can pop to the kitchen and bathroom and take a quick look.

This sense of naturalness and immediacy is possibly connected to what we often hear from clients – that their sense of being close to their consumers is actually greater than it was or would have been sat behind a two-way mirror.

Their customers are after all only 50 cm away – plus they’re in their own homes, so arguably with a higher degree of authenticity and relaxion.

What’s not to like?

That’s our very short summary of what we see as the new online qual basics. Some of it is less surprising – but the sense that digital can actually beat F2F for empathy is certainly an eye-opener.
The task of the moderator is however arguably harder to ensure that an empathy zone is possible within stricter time and space limits, and virtually zero body language

In the second part of our contribution (which will be published next week – ed.) we will focus on more complex projects such as concept labs and – yes – online co-creation.

This article was first published in German on

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