Leading Researchers on the Evolution of Online Qual – What to expect before 2012

Very late last century, 30 or so quallies crammed into a darkened room in an internet café – the first time some had ever set foot in such a place. We were all driven by curiosity about our own future, lured by the promise of magical new abilities, and slightly in awe of the presenter, Michael Herbert, who had pioneered ‘Cyberqual’ in 1994 and was now going to show us how to run online groups.

It would be a number of years before the number of UK qualitative researchers using online methodologies could be counted on the fingers of more than one hand. There were anxieties about how to recruit and confirm identities, finding respondents with good enough computer and typing skills – and these were the days before broadband so sharing stimulus material was a challenge.

However the biggest barrier was the lack of feel. Where was the emoticon for mismatch between a statement and a tone of voice? Where were the powerful silences, the meaningful looks, the words unspoken yet felt? No chance of using subtle questioning techniques or any but the most basic verbal projectives. Most of us decided the few advantages of online did not outweigh the disadvantages.

So, 10 years later, what has changed?
Well, how do you feel if your broadband is down for more than an hour? Suppose you left the house without your mobile? Suppose you lost your laptop?
In these situations people tell us they feel anxious, disconnected, cut off, unloved. Chunks of their identity are left elsewhere, people feel detached from their social and work worlds. It has become the norm to reach out to others through emails, texts and various forms of social networking. Connecting online has become both meaningful and emotional in that it recognisably fulfils a fundamental human need to be part of a broader social group.  
Technologically, broadband, interactive online whiteboards, the ability of respondents and researchers alike to upload and download are key to improving the interactivity and feel of online qual. You can create collages online from participant generated material, you can do sorting and mapping exercises, embed videos, work with visual metaphors – and the participants have as much or as little control over the output as you wish. Clients can sit in a virtual back room and interact with the moderator from the comfort of their office.

Research can now be based more in the real world than in a studio and can use several channels to creatively explore the world of the participant. As opposed to mere respondents, participants can be much more active in the process, engaged in a range of tasks at different times, iteratively building and commenting on the research issues.

Yes, but, we still can’t see or feel ‘the spaces between words’ as Wendy Gordon so eloquently put it. Written communications can be more detailed and better thought through than verbal responses, but as quallies we are used to working with empathy, energy and emotion, and all of those are still problematic in the online world.

This would be a great drawback for online qualitative research if it were not for one thing – the rise of the focus group. What are commonly known as focus groups used to be called group discussions and there are differences other than semantics. Mary Goodyear famously wrote a paper describing ‘group discussions’ as ‘conative’ – exploratory, based on eliciting participants own thought structures as material for analysis and interpretation to provide deeper understanding, while ‘focus groups’ (then more predominant in the US) were ‘cognitive’ – more structured, disciplined, less interaction between participants, and designed to elicit information that was taken more at face value.

The internationalisation and commoditisation of research has meant the spread of the US model so that now all groups are routinely called focus groups (even if they are more like group discussions) and there is a trend towards more prescribed, client designed topic guides that unwittingly restrict researcher exploration and interpretation. This model works well for many clients, although one of the best critiques of this approach comes from the American Gerald Zaltman – see his book How Consumers Think.

It is exactly these ‘cognitive’ types of research projects that are ripe for online groups – set topics, simple stimulus and basic projectives, responses from everyone and the instant gratification of transcripts immediately after. Not to mention projects about the increasingly important online world, which sit more naturally in an online environment. The role of face to face will be ‘conative’, exploring and understanding the lived experience of the individual, in a social context, and how they make sense of, and interpret the products and services they interact with.

Back to Michael Herbert, this time from his paper at the AQR-QRCA Conference Qualitative Research in the 21st Century. There is a role for both online and face to face:

"This study has been about comparing online qualitative with face to face using the same respondents in both types of group. The evidence suggests that both are meaningful and interactive experiences for the respondents although they recognise them as different processes...... We would argue based on this study and our online qualitative experience, that it is a valid and meaningful way of conducting qualitative research for both respondents and researcher."

Qualitative is about to diverge, not just into two, but into three different strands. Online, for the day to day ‘lets add a bit of knowledge’ research, face to face for in depth understanding and hypothesis building – and yes, back to online again for the third strand – multi-method insight.

We do have magical new abilities after all, thanks to the combination of mobile phones, cameras and the internet. We can see exactly what our participants are seeing at each of their points of contact with the brand, we can ask them what they are doing, thinking, feeling at any time. We can watch or build communities, use analytics to discover who is saying what about any given topic, build mind clouds, do research without leaving the desk. Embedding focus groups within a range of other methodologies, at other points during the research process. strengthens the robustness and validity of the research project. Coming at the research problem from a number of different perspectives increases the chances for insight generation.

In another 10 years there will be no more debate about online or face to face; our only issue will be keeping abreast of all the new developments and opportunities for creating relevant understanding for our clients.

End note …

Joanna Chrzanowska and myself launched a training course for researchers to offer an introduction to running qualitative research online. An indication of the level of interest was that we sold out the course 3 times over in a matter of days - so this is clearly an area of huge interest. In the past clients have been sceptical about running qual research online as an alternative to face to face groups but I hope we have been able to show how useful it can be. We used the Visionslive platform for the 90 minute live chatroom style session - and put together a webjam (www.webjam.com) to let participants experience the bulletin board approach where sessions can be run for days or weeks if desired. Visionslive worked very well as a way to gather immediate feedback and for allowing respondents to post and comment on multimedia content. The fact that I was able to participate on a train heading up the East Coast for one of the courses is a strong indication that online research really is coming into its own as a research tool you can run with participants everywhere. From anywhere!”

John Griffiths – Qual Research practitioner , trainer and writer, Winner Best New Thinking (MRS Conference 2004). Speaker, facilitator for WARC, APG, IDM and MRS

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