A Wake-Up Call to Our Industry: Qualitative Research in the Age of Social Distancing

By Michael Carlon, Founder and Chief Storyteller, Vertigo Partners, LLC, Stamford, CT, Michael.carlon@vertigopartners.com

The outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, commonly called the coronavirus, has led to unprecedented changes in our ways of life. At the time of writing this article, my kids’ school was closed for at least two weeks to help curtail the spread of the virus. The CDC recommended limiting any social gatherings to under ten people, and all restaurants in my town, as well as neighboring towns, were closed. Additionally, we are not letting our three 17-year-olds engage in any social activities, and, as a result, my wife and I are socially distancing ourselves from them for not just our own health, but for our own personal safety as well. Kidding aside, we are in the early stages of living in a new normal.

Reminiscent of 9/11

As qualitative researchers, there’s no denying that social distancing has taken a toll on our businesses. Participants were hesitant to join small groups of strangers or even venture out into the office buildings where research sessions are typically held. As consultants, we were hesitant to head to airports and other cities to do our jobs, and clients were suspending or postponing research studies as the future of their own businesses remains uncertain. It reminds me of another milestone event that occurred earlier in my career as a researcher—the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

At that time, I was working client-side at MasterCard in Westchester County, New York. While over thirty miles away from ground zero, we were able to see the plumes of smoke billowing from lower Manhattan. It was one of those moments when we knew that normalcy was a long way away. Due to the attacks being committed by plane, air travel came to a halt. This, of course, significantly impacted the qualitative industry as in-person research tends to be done in multiple geographies with the same moderator traveling from city to city for consistency.

Enter Online Qualitative

Make no mistake, online qualitative solutions had been around for a while before 9/11. While working as a research manager at Modem Media, the world’s first interactive advertising agency, I had used both chat-based online focus groups and asynchronous bulletin boards to address client needs as early as 1997. However, the software wasn’t all that reliable. I remember while testing some Flash-based banners for Intel, the online focus group software would crash whenever we’d present creative. In addition, since participants had to type responses, and some people are more adept at typing than others, we’d frequently see responses to questions come in well after the discussion had moved on from a particular topic. Lastly, the ability to probe, a linchpin of qualitative research, was limited, particularly in bulletin boards where participants infrequently came back to answer follow-up questions posted by the moderator. While these tools were solutions for the challenges we faced after 9/11, they required researchers to trade off quality for convenience and didn’t really take off.

Coming Face-to-Face

Today, though, online qualitative solutions have come to the rescue of the qualitative research industry amidst the Covid-19 outbreak. The key difference now versus post-9/11 is that broadband internet access is the rule, rather than the exception. As a result, qualitative consultants can engage with participants face-to-face through webcams, making the interview process almost seamless for one-on-one interviews (although I’d argue we have a long way to go to make group interviewing effective online).

Companies like 20|20 Research, FocusVision, and CiviCom were early movers in webcam-based interviewing. The first incarnation of platforms mostly relied on Adobe Connect, a Flash-based tool designed specifically for online training and web conferencing. While a reliable tool, it did have three significant limitations.

  1. For greater reliability, audio had to go over a phone line, and this extra step could be confusing to both participants and observers.
  2. Because the tool was Flash-based, researchers were limited on the type of stimuli that could be shared.
  3. Each session had to render in real-time in order to download, meaning that if you had twelve hours of interviewing you wanted to save, you needed twelve hours of time to download.

Eventually, Zoom took over the webcam interviewing market as a preferred platform and brought significant improvements, including solutions addressing all three limitations of Adobe Connect outlined above. In addition, a researcher willing to invest the time in learning the tool could bypass resellers and purchase their own annual license, thereby saving some out-of-pocket costs.

Going Mobile

Beyond broadband internet and the prevalence of webcam interviewing, something else has revolutionized online qualitative research—the widespread adoption of the smartphone. While a convenient and powerful tool for more “longitudinal” qualitative research, asynchronous research tools largely required a participant to be tethered to either a laptop or a desktop computer. Imagine if the study objective was to understand the customer experience at a casual dining restaurant. In the earlier days of bulletin board research, a participant would have an experience and then go home to share that experience via the software.

Today, however, using apps provided by companies including Indeemo, dScout, and 20|20’s Over the Shoulder, participants can use their mobile devices to document that experience through text, pictures, and video responses in-the-moment, reducing the need to rely on one’s recollection of an experience. For the researcher, this not only leads to more reliable feedback, but frankly, the multimedia responses make them more interesting to follow. Additionally, the short videos that come out of these studies make for compelling ways to bring research findings to life.

Hybrid Approaches

It’s likely that not one of these online approaches alone are a perfect substitute for an in-person method. Take ethnographic interviewing, for example. Imagine that, before the Covid-19 outbreak, you had planned on conducting twelve in-home interviews to observe how a participant uses their smartphone throughout the day to complete certain tasks. Such a project would now be considered high-risk given the call for social distancing, as it involves two strangers meeting in close quarters throughout an extended period of time. As a researcher, you recommend that instead of doing the project in-person, the participant self-documents every time they use their mobile phone throughout the day through the use of a mobile research tool.

It’s a good solution, but you are bound to notice some behaviors and attitudes that require more in-depth exploration. While these diary tools are great at collecting observations, they have limitations on mining depth. This is where webcam interviewing can come in handy as a supplement to the diary work. Select participants can be invited to one-on-one interviews, and the researcher can use that time to mine further insight from the observations captured in the mobile diary. To prompt discussion, these observations can be shared via screen sharing, allowing the participant to “voice-over” their footage.

In addition to being more efficient, such an approach can add value to a project as researchers can interview participants regardless of geographic location. Because participants can document their behavior over the course of days instead of hours and take their mobile device almost anywhere, we can capture a wider slice of behavior.

Tips and Tricks

There are some nuances to consider when moving a research study from in-person to online. Just like with traditional research, you have to over-recruit participants. Whereas you might recruit eight participants to seat six for a focus group, the rule of thumb when it comes to online research is to overrecruit by 30 percent. So, if you want to engage twenty people in a mobile diary, you will have to recruit twenty-six.

Additionally, when it comes to webcam interviews, expect some participants to have difficulty doing basic tasks such as joining the session, connecting their audio, and turning on their webcams. If you are using a reseller to host the session, they will provide a tech to troubleshoot any problems that arise. If not, consider creating a brief how-to guide for joining a session, and have your recruiter send that out with a recruit confirmation. Additionally, you can consider having your recruiter “walk-in” each participant for an added fee. In this situation, the recruiter will phone each participant and walk them through the log-in process and remain available until the interview starts.

Bringing it Together

Unlike the time period following 9/11, researchers now have online solutions available that do not trade quality for convenience. At the time of this writing, we don’t yet know the full magnitude COVID-19 will have on our communities; it very well may be that we will have a cold season, a flu season, and a COVID-19 season. During certain times of the year, social distancing may be our new normal. As such, it is critical that all qualitative consultants get up to speed on ways to conduct qualitative research that do not involve being in-person with participants. I urge the industry to continue to evolve digital solutions, keeping in mind what our new normal may be.

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