Consumer qual is central to the holistic solutions we provide at MTM, yet Covid restrictions have greatly diminished the role of traditional face-to-face approaches.  As a result, we’ve augmented our suite of online alternatives to ensure that we continue to deliver truly nuanced insights and actionable understanding.     

This article traces our journey from the role of qual at MTM, through to the impact of Covid and how we’ve evolved online alternatives to traditional staples of our offer. 

The role of qual at MTM

At MTM, we pride ourselves in providing uniquely hybrid research and strategy solutions to client needs across the media, tech, entertainment and sports sectors.  While we’re methodologically neutral when considering the requirements of specific briefs, consumer qual is often key to grounding our solutions in detailed understanding of human experiences and needs.  Of course, we recognise that people don’t exist in vacuums, and custom qual and quant are typically coupled with investigating broader cultural and market contexts.  

Even within individual project designs, we’re agnostic in terms of innovative digital qual techniques and more traditional offline alternatives, and frequently mix both in our tailored approaches.  Yet it’s often face-to-face interactions that are key to unpicking the big questions that we love to help clients grapple with.  Across our vastly experienced qual team we have a genuine passion for the topics we explore, and thrive on living and breathing participant experiences through ethnography and being part of everyday conversations in groups and depth interviews.  As such, we spend countless hours in homes across the UK and beyond observing people’s media habits, immersing in sports experiences with players and fans, and debating the benefits of brand, comms and product propositions in viewing facilities.  

However, Covid has brought an abrupt halt to these hugely valued face-to-face interactions, and caused us to rethink how virtual alternatives can play similar roles.  

The impact of Covid-19 on traditional qual approaches

Covid restrictions have greatly shaken up the options available to qual researchers.  Like many, we’ve had to revisit the way we work, and that’s included hitting pause on in-home interviews, ethnographic observations, and groups with participants and clients.  

While, like many of our peers, we had a tried-and-tested suite of online qual methods to build upon; it was crucial that we didn’t lose the rapport of in-person exchanges over a cup of tea and bundle of stim, and an unfiltered read on non-verbal cues and tone of response.  

As a result, we’ve put participant experiences at the heart of how we’ve accelerated the development of virtual alternatives to face-to-face individual, group and ethnographic approaches.  

There have certainly been challenges along the way, but the experience has bolstered our array of tools and techniques.     

Augmenting our online qual offer 

  • Individual and group exploration

Depth interviews and group discussions have long been the bread and butter of qual research, yet online has tended to play second fiddle to face to face – certainly in the eyes of purists (myself included).  We were keen to evolve an approach to virtual groups and depths that had participant experiences at its heart and didn’t require advanced tech aptitude.  (We’ve retained the option of traditional remote alternatives like telephone depths and written tasks to ensure inclusivity.) Likewise, a clean read on non-verbal cues needed to be maintained, alongside the practicalities of efficiently sharing and capturing responses to stim.    

For most of our depth interviews (with singles or pairs), we’ve focused on video-call platforms like Zoom that are familiar and easily accessible to a growing range of consumers.  To further boost participant experiences, we’ve sought to focus on shorter conversations, with streamlined guides and carefully tailored tasks.  In practical terms, video calls allow easy sharing of text and multimedia stim, discreet client viewing (cameras and mics off please!) and, for multi-country work, live simultaneous translations.  

We’ve also focused on consumer-friendly platforms like Zoom for most of our virtual discussion groups, with specialist qual platforms (e.g. FocusVision InterVu) reserved for more technically demanding projects.  We favour intimate sessions of 4-5 participants and shorter durations (certainly no more than 2 hours) to maintain engagement and group dynamics – and to ease what can be a draining process for moderators in front of screens, endeavouring to progress discussions and carefully time interjections!

While clients can discreetly view sessions, it’s difficult to fully replicate the backroom experience of traditional viewing facilities (and sadly no refreshments or takeaways are offered!).  Yet we’ve developed our approach to include client chat via messenger platforms (e.g. Slack, WhatsApp), which allow sharing of feedback and probes.  As with sessions in viewing facilities, it’s essential to have team members on hand to address technical difficulties and assist participants and clients. 

It’s also been possible to accommodate larger scale virtual workshops, despite participant numbers and session timings being at a premium.  Again, using widely available video-call platforms, breakout rooms can be harnessed to focus discussions among smaller sub groups.  Tools like collaborative online whiteboards (e.g. Miro) go some way to replicating the interactive tasks of co-creation and ideation sessions – even if we still yearn for old-school flip charts, post-its and marker pens!

  • Real-time observation 

Covid restrictions have also presented barriers to traditional ethnography and participant observation.  With such methods key to getting at actual, in-the-moment human behaviours and needs, we’ve worked hard to develop unobtrusive virtual alternatives.  

Mobile ethnography was already a major part of our toolkit for capturing real-time habits and attitudes, and has prospered amid the more isolated living of recent times.  A mix of free and specialist apps are used to capture in-the-moment contributions, with follow-up interviews retrospectively reviewing and unpicking behaviours.  WhatsApp is a familiar and easy go-to for smaller scale projects, with dedicated video-based services (e.g. Indeemo, Medallia Living Lens) ideal for more extensive work.  

Periods of lockdown have also presented the chance to deploy our video ethnography offer, with wearables and fixed cameras delivering first-hand snapshots of everyday lives.  Working in collaboration with our video partner, The Production Company, time-lapse filming can trace household media habits over several days or weeks.  Life-logging cameras unobtrusively capture media habits whether sat in front of the TV or – where restrictions permit – on the move for work and leisure activities.  

UX testing is another area to be impacted by Covid restrictions, with direct observation and feedback at labs often off limits.  Remote, screen-sharing solutions allow real-time probing as participants navigate user interfaces (UIs) at various development stages.  Where possible, we factor in pre-task immersion in UIs to openly capture feedback in natural settings, with questioning subsequently directed at specific development areas.  Platforms that are freely available and easily accessible to participants cater to most test needs, with additional tools (e.g. biometrics, usage tracking) available for more intensive exploration.  

What’s next?

There’s some folly in projecting too far ahead in uncertain times, but it’s clear that burgeoning virtual approaches will have an enduring role in qual studies.  We look forward to drawing on them for specific project needs, alongside familiar online options like communities and digital journals and, hopefully before too long, the return of traditional face-to-face methods.  

We’re already yearning for the qual joys of travel around the UK and beyond and, most of all, spending time face to face with participants and clients.  We certainly miss the tea and biscuits (and train-home tipples and snacks!), and being looked after by our many friends at facilities and venues.