Monday 6th November 2023


Online or in real life? – it really is horses for courses

In Covid times it was amazing how quickly the qual research world adapted and got used to doing fieldwork online. It was a lifesaver because it meant that research could be done in a flexible way, cutting out travel, and with participants at home too, it made perfect sense.

Now we’re back in post-Covid times the world of work has changed in innumerable ways. Hybrid working in many industries has become the norm, and qual research has pivoted again, and is often a combination of IRL methodologies and online – depending on the brief.

At Differentology we create a bespoke methodology for each brief that comes our way and will do a brainstorm as a team to discuss methodology. We are not tied to one approach, or a one size fits all solution.

Online methodologies- here’s some of the benefits

Communicating online is often the norm for many targets

There are a myriad of benefits to taking fieldwork online. For certain target groups communicating online is the norm, and even for ethnographic projects, self-ethnography can be a great way to get consumers to report back – using video and photos to bring to life an experience like preparing dinner or a typical breakfast with their kids.

Online also feels more accessible for some targets who struggle with attending a focus group in person, or might find it intimidating or overwhelming. It’s also true to say that many of us have become less social because of Covid – so doing groups online makes some people feel more comfortable because they are not being asked to travel to an unknown place and meet people in real life – they can instead opt for a familiar and ‘safe’ environment.

Sensitive topics can feel easier to talk about

Some topics such as medical issues or emotional experiences that are challenging or triggering can feel more anonymous and therefore easier if they are taken online. This means that if we’re doing research into ‘incontinence’ for example doing an online group might feel much easier because people aren’t sitting opposite one another and potentially feeling judged or exposed (it’s interesting however that real life can also work as long as the methodology is tailored correctly i.e., thinking about depth interviews or friendship pairs rather than a group if the topic is super sensitive).

Time saving for clients and accessibility for participants

There are also of course benefits for clients in that they can watch from their laptop and fit it in around their work schedule. It also, on some projects, allows for quicker turnaround because travel time is reduced, and so reporting can be done more quickly – this is especially true on international studies where multiple markets can be done simultaneously or in quick succession as the researcher isn’t travelling to brief in person and observe.

This convenience is also important when it comes to recruitment so thinking about high-net-worth individuals and recruiting C-suite participants as they are unlikely to agree to talking to researchers unless they can fit it into their work diary.

Online focus groups can also be more accessible to participants who are geographically dispersed so it allows for a broader and more diverse participant pool. We are not tied to the typical 2-3 locations that you might see on a UK project and can cast our net wider.

There are also moderating techniques that help bring out the best in participants

Some qual researchers feel like the energy isn’t always the same in online groups but arguably there are techniques that can be used to get the best out of people in online settings.

Examples of these might be: taking regular screen breaks, building in creative exercises like projective techniques to delve into subconscious associations, thinking about different platforms that feel intuitive and encourage collaboration, and using break out rooms for bigger group sessions.

Breaks are important (even a mini-break in a one-and-a-half-hour session)– in a recent study by Microsoft, participants were asked to take part in zoom meetings, some being given breaks to do short meditations and others going straight onto other meetings. Those who were given a chance to rest showed a decrease in beta activity- so they started their next meeting in a more relaxed state. Beta waves are associated with stress and so the research illustrated that simply building in short breaks allowed for a more relaxed and therefore helpful meeting (this study was done to illustrate the importance of breaks in work contexts but also holds true for qualitative research – we also like to keep the sessions shorter than real life sessions if we are doing online groups as focusing for long periods of time in a Zoom context can feel incredibly draining to participants).

It is true to say that our brains are changing as we get used to working and communicating more online, and so we are finding that more participants are feeling relaxed and natural in the online world. Interestingly this isn’t just true for people who work in office roles- it’s also true of other demographics who have taken more of their communications online i.e., using WhatsApp to keep in touch with family and becoming more used to FaceTime/Zoom to keep in touch too.

Reading body language can be challenging but there are work arounds for this

Moderators can also find it challenging to read non-verbal cues when research is online. There are ‘work arounds’ for this, but it is true to say that sometimes it can be challenging to truly read the body language when a group is online. So, it helps to get verbal confirmations too and follow up with – ‘It looks like you felt flat about that idea, or have I got that wrong?’ Its also important to use names more in online groups- otherwise conversation can feel more stilted. This also creates more of a sense of connection- so ensuring everyone feels on board and has their chance to talk. Moderating dominant participants can feel more challenging but there are sensitive ways to deal with this. So using the name of someone else in the group to encourage them to speak or going back to an earlier response to probe more so you can move the discussion along.

In real life methodologies

So, what about doing qual in real life? Is it actually necessary? Or it is better to just do everything online?

In real life groups are great for workshop style sessions with multiple stakeholders

We still find that in real life groups can be positive in terms of getting multiple stake holders involved and generating ideas as a team.

They’re also good for presenting output so holding a debrief in situ is great to get everyone on board and fully involved. We often get online meeting fatigue and so all know the benefit of seeing people in person. This doesn’t mean that all debriefs need to be in-person but we like to explore this with the client to see what feels best for them and the team in terms of generating next steps and learnings.

Rapport building with participants for multiple phases of research

There is also a sense – and this is something we are just noticing – as we compare the two approaches – that we get more of a rapport with participants when we use in real life methodologies. It’s easier to connect and warm them up. It isn’t impossible online but we have to work harder as moderators sometimes to achieve this.

This is something that is changing however with more people becoming used to working online and getting acclimatised to forming connections with others this way.

Complicated stimulus and multiple iterations of an idea

It’s true to say that sometimes stimulus can be challenging in any context but when it is a project that involves multiple iterations of an idea, and ideas that are in a very rough and early phase, face to face can be easier in terms of the moderator being able to adapt the approach and use the stimulus in the most useful way. So rough creative sketches to bring to life new product concepts or early stage advertising is often best presented in real life. We will always think about the kind of stimulus we are going to have and design the best approach to fit this challenge.

If it’s concept recycling, real life tends to be easier, because we can schedule breaks between the sessions and have the client team collaborate with us on optimising the concept before sending them back into the next session. Having said that this can be done online too- it’s just about putting breaks in and using the best collaborative tools we can find to get the stimulus looking okay and as consumer friendly as possible.

We might use IRL groups if we have a longer tail to the project and want to get the participants to interact and respond in different ways during the life cycle of the project (i.e., do a community exercise then meet up to talk about the findings). We are still analysing our approaches to see if any patterns emerge but there are certain briefs where an element of IRL research feels right.

Where does the target feel most comfortable?

Arguably there are certain targets who welcome in real life meetings more than others and some will potentially feel on the back foot technology wise when it comes to trying to navigate an online group.

So older targets, and certain specific briefs (more generative, more brainstorming in nature) can feel more useful in real life rather than being set up online. Having said that we have also been surprised at how engaged older targets can be when they’re in an online setting – Covid behaviours have accelerated certain target groups, so they have in effect, become savvier and more comfortable with using technology. It’s important not to make assumptions i.e., older people can’t use tech!

We would usually start all projects with desk research so we can understand the market context for consumers. It might sound like a cop out but ultimately there is not one magic bullet when it comes to talking to people. It is about looking at the demographic, thinking about where they hang out and feel comfortable and then thinking about the type of learnings we want to generate.

It’s also about the client and what feels realistic in terms of their schedule. Ultimately there isn’t a magic solution. Just as the world of work is changing post Covid, so the world of research continues to evolve with it.

By Anniki Sommerville, Director- Strategic Insights

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