Thursday, 12 March 2015

Well there’s your traditional qual, and then there’s your online…

I attended the BIG/ICG Northern Forum last night, an excellent evening hosted by Acumen and the Fuller Research Group. The theme was online qualitative research and I tweeted in advance that I thought it might change my life. On reflection, I think it might well have the potential to do just that.
You see online qualitative research these days is not necessarily about running group discussions online. As it happens the person presenting to us is clearly not a big fan of this particular methodology.
No, it turns out modern day online qual is more about encouraging participants to express themselves in any and every way in which the internet can facilitate.
So it’s send us a diary of your past week using your new slow-cooker. Send us a picture of your house and your partner so we can fit that into the context section of our presentation. Upload a video of you looking at irons in John Lewis. Go on our version of Facebook and join in a conversation or ‘forum’ about where you like to eat out.
Yes, it appears that actually interviewing real people in real time doesn’t have to take place at all.
Oh but you do have to be good at analysing the ‘data’ you get sent apparently. And try not to let the client get their hands on that data before you’ve had a chance to collate said data and use your well-honed qualitative skills to imagine why participants have chosen to upload that particular video of them swimming with dolphins in Miami.
Now I’m at risk here of sounding Luddite-like and this really is not the case. The truth is what got my goat last night was the early comparison made between running two group discussions and obtaining information from sixteen people online.
Surprise, surprise, some group attendees didn’t get to say much, or got away without saying much, depending on your point of view. And surprise, surprise, there were some amazing pictures sent in of people, houses, cats, budgies, cars, planes, automobiles, the lot. And imagine how they all looked collaged up for the debrief.
I’m not saying that the information generated online wasn’t impressive, and I’m not saying that they wouldn’t add a great deal to a final presentation or report. What I am saying is that at no point did we hear about how this new ‘data’ was to be interpreted. And at no point did we hear of what, if any, interventions might be made between providing instructions to participants and using what they then provided to form a debrief.
Twenty plus years of experience tells me traditional qual has been hard graft – it’s not just about travelling up and down the country, it’s about working your socks off in groups and in depth interviews, to get people to open up. Drive, agonise, analyse, interpret, report.
By comparison, at times last night it felt that online qual might offer a slightly more comfortable way to forge a career. Instruct, collect, collate, collage, present.
There is definitely room for all of the techniques shown last night, and I came away convinced that there are probably even more than five wonders of online qual research. But let’s not blur the lines between collecting diaries and pictures, and conducting excellent groups and depth interviews.
And let’s not lose sight of the fact that insight generated via groups and depths can feel just as rich, if not richer, than giving people the power of the internet and asking them to upload a video of themselves feeding their guinea pig.

1 comment:

  1. Well said Barrie. Bad habits have crept in over the years, and perhaps the most alarming one is the retreat of analysis and interpretation. I wonder how many researchers still listen back to their tapes? Online, with the putative 'insight' provided by photos and video has accelerated this trend.

    Like you, I wouldn't for a minute knock online, but it like all methods it is a question of its correct application. And the applications you cite are wonderful complements to face-to-face, but certainly not replacements for it.