The pandemic enforced change on all of us, not least those of us who work in qualitative research. The shift from in-person to ‘digital’ interactions was swift and remarkably effective; facilitated by incredible technology. But with the recent announcements of relaxations of social restrictions, we ask ourselves; what will the qualitative practice look like now and further into the future?

To explore this topic in depth we ran an online panel discussion with:

  • Debrah Harding, Managing Director of the Market Research Society (MRS);
  • Laura Roberts; Head of Insight – Brand and Marketing (EMEA) at Google;
  • James Bryson; Managing Partner, Research at MTM

You can watch a 10 minute teaser video here, or watch the full hour event here, which includes a Q&A session. Or if you prefer you can listen to the podcast version here

Here are the key findings from our session…

The fast transition to online solutions and the (unexpected) benefits:

While the shift online was initially bumpy – sometimes comically so – as participants, moderators, and clients got accustomed to doing everything through online platforms, eventually the process smoothed out and everyone became adept at running qualitative research through these channels.

Of course, online methodologies were already very well established, but the pandemic accelerated the ubiquity of online interactions as the primary mode of qualitative research. This shift, apart from keeping the industry alive, led to a range of unexpected benefits:

  • Greater regional reach: being able to conduct sessions outside of the big metropolises and get more engagement with people from across rural regions and smaller towns.
  • Faster international research: being able to run sessions across the world at greater speed.
  • A trained and captive audience: a large majority of people were forced to shift online meaning that participants have learned to live on Zoom groups, making it much easier to engage.
  • Associated technology: platforms like Miro and Mural came into their own and made online sessions much more interactive.
  • Flexibility of sessions: online groups and interviews allowed for more flexibility of engagement, meaning that sessions could be throughout the day.

The downsides of predominantly online approaches:

Despite many positives, the consensus was that a predominantly online approach has numerous downsides that need to be considered. 

From a representation level there is a growing misconception that everyone is online now. Indeed, over 15% of the population – according to the Digital Divide report by the ONS –  is not online for various reasons, be they economic, cultural, or demographic. So lack of digital skills is a significant factor and online sessions leave out a large portion of the audience.

Further, online sessions have brought to life a range of further GDPR challenges. For instance, practitioners have had to deal with non-research participants i.e. family members appearing in video sessions. There is a need to offset and adapt the privacy needs of individuals.

But it’s mostly at a methodological and learning level that the panel identified challenges. A series of losses were identified:

  • Loss of non-verbal communication: online discussions are simply not as natural and you miss out on key cues to understand people’s thoughts and perceptions
  • Loss of conflict: ‘lively’ discussion is critical to creativity. Online sessions don’t allow for as much debate – sessions are more systematic and sequential, with one person talking after the other rather than the natural interruptions and building of points you might otherwise have. Insights often come out of conflict and we need the potential to recreate the right environment for vibrant discussions.
  • Loss of theatre of qualitative research: there is something more impactful and memorable in viewing a group live. Much like watching a concert, it is much better when you can see and feel the experience.
  • Loss of a holistic understanding: when doing exploratory audience understanding work, the lack of context is a significant issue. When researchers can travel and be in-home alongside participants we get a much more complete perspective. Much is lost when relying on a small screen and remote presence.

Where do we go from there?

All panellists recognised that the future will be hybrid, with more of an online focus than before. Ultimately, certain challenges will benefit from online discussions; particularly true when there’s a need for fast, more tactical responses. But there will be many challenges that require a more nuanced, in-person approach; whether it be for exploratory work, more strategic challenges, or for early stage creative development that lends itself to nuanced discussion around significant amounts of stimulus. 

As people re-emerge from restrictions and take part in normal life interactions, in-person research will be more viable. Moreover, a task-force of facilities have come together to ensure that best practice is implemented and in-person sessions are safe and conducive to research. This has led to clear MRS guidelines available for all practitioners to run in-person research with confidence. Participants are ready, facilities are ready, and the industry is ready for a return to face-to-face as needed. 

The net outcome is that qualitative practitioners will now have more strings to their bow. That means more ways of answering the array of challenges that require a qualitative lens. If nothing else, that is one important aspect to take out of this challenging year.