Friday, June 25, 2010

Research on Research: An Examination of the Quality, Cost, & Speed of Online Qualitative Research


For decades, face-to-face (F2F) interviewing, as the method for conducting qualitative research, has been viewed as the optimal condition for collecting data. By being present at the time data are collected, a skilled qualitative research consultant (QRC) can listen to and understand the direct answers that participants give to the QRC’s questions and combine those data with visual cues from non-verbal behavior such as body language and facial expressions, as well as with word emphasis and voice inflection. In so doing, that QRC may get a deeper understanding and a clearer view of participants’ attitudes, self-reported behavior, and the emotional basis for their actions, over and above what is afforded by verbal data alone.

Yet, when we review the history of quantitative market research, we see that what began as F2F interviewing (whether done by door-to-door or mall intercepts), eventually shifted to different methodologies which capitalized on advances in technology. These became opportunities for our industry to drive down study costs and time requirements. Over time, study methods migrated to computer assisted telephone interviews (CATI) which, in turn, was followed by the Internet. Each shift was caused by the cost and time benefits to organizations that commissioned research, as well as the proven viability of the method to the market research industry. Nowadays, it is only under special circumstances that a quantitative study will deploy a F2F method, having to do with certain characteristics of the target population or the test stimuli or some other unique set of conditions.

Granted, quantitative research does not have at its core the quality standard of yielding data that are in-depth and emotionally-based as does its qualitative counterpart. Rather, quantitative data that are high quality are closely representative of a population so that statistical tests of significance can be performed and inferences can be drawn. In contrast, qualitative research must yield data that reflect the dynamic interrelationships between an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. These studies are designed to pose short, open-ended questions, receive detailed answers and, based on those answers, probe with other questions that may not necessarily have been planned before the outset of the study. The QRC must use special interviewing skills that enable the discussion to veer into unplanned directions and otherwise seize opportunities for a deeper glimpse into the inner workings of study participants’ hearts and minds.

Perhaps now we have reached a point during which new technologies may be used in qualitative research to provide similar reductions in cost and time and provide more options to QRCs in offering new, alternative solutions to clients’ needs that may be more appropriate than traditional ones alone. For that matter, these same technologies could also be used to augment qualitative research by combining them with F2F participant interaction. Study costs and cycle times may be sharply reduced, surely. But if the quality of the data was comparable or represented a worthwhile trade-off, the entire market research industry and all of its participating members would benefit. QRCs, in particular would be able to provide solutions to clients that may be more appropriate to the study objectives using entirely non-F2F or hybrid methods, and this would enable them to provide better service. Also, there would be increased capacity by freeing up time that would be otherwise spent traveling. Less considered but of distinct importance is that the carbon footprint associated with a given study can be reduced or virtually eliminated, too. So, the question may be asked “are there Internet-based technologies that can be leveraged to conduct in-depth qualitative research in a way that affords the professional QRC the opportunity to exercise all the alacrity and prowess that is brought to bear in a typical F2F study?”

As it is, social media usage has developed and become widespread very quickly. Social networks, blogsites, and other online “beehives” appear to be all around us. Millions of people continue to adopt social media sites as their primary source of all kinds of information. Over the past few years, more and more of the general population has embraced the social networking phenomenon. Blogging, for example, has become widespread and continues to grow. The term “blog” (a portmanteau of the term "web log") is a type of website usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. This term only recently came into existence, but now is a household word. For all intents and purposes, blogging has become a comfortable, almost natural form of interpersonal communication in today’s society.

So, if blogging is as common a behavior as we assume, we can combine the ease with which general consumers blog with current mainstream technologies, such as broadband connectivity and digital technology, and use it to facilitate qualitative studies in market research. The potential benefits of doing so include those for organizations, QRCs, and the market research industry as a whole.

Based on these observed conditions, we set out to test the viability of an online platform to facilitate a truly in-depth study in qualitative research, an ethnography, which we reasoned would be the optimal litmus test of these assumptions. In essence, if we were successful in conducting a “BlogNography,” we would have demonstrated that we can use technology to improve conditions for qualitative research in general. It was our main goal in this research to test and then tell, what we think, is a very compelling story to research professionals. That is, conditions have emerged in society and in technology that, when aligned, can alter the way in which qualitative research is done. The benefits to be gained are as great and similar in nature to those enjoyed by changes in methodology in quantitative research. As such, our mission now is to begin the process of raising industry-wide consciousness to the benefits of replacing in-person qualitative research with online platforms that are designed to capitalize on society’s comfort level with blogging and enable consumers to share their lives, stories, aspirations, fears, and hopes using textual and visual data.


What is more basic and fundamental to our lives than the American family? How better can we understand what is important to the family than by studying them while under challenging conditions, such as dinner time in the home? We chose this topic because we sensed that it would be rich and fertile ground for us to explore. We assumed that if we were successful in achieving what qualitative research is designed for (to develop an in-depth understanding of human behavior and the reasons that govern such behavior) using the Internet rather than face-to-face methods, it would be a clear demonstration of the viability of the online medium for qualitative research.

Life today typically contains several competing objectives and goals. Raising children, jobs, school, friends, extra-curricular activities, volunteerism, homework, relaxation, and sleep all have the potential to impinge upon the day and its schedule and demand attention at the expense of the other pressing needs. Since we are all part of a family, we know that there are many factors that shape, mold, facilitate, inhibit and impinge upon how the “typical dinner” is executed in a family. Consider social needs, historical traditions, biological and nutritional requirements, financial and budgetary limitations, religious practices, physical space, gender roles, political divisions of labor, time pressures, occupational characteristics, and not least of all, culinary skills. The constellation of all these factors contributes to the unique manner in which dinner is done for each individual family, and their blogging provided a looking-glass into their experiences and associated emotional content.

The dinner process provides a direct view of the real value placed by the family on getting together, conversing, exchanging experiences, discussing plans, developing strategies, and surviving as a family unit. There is only so much time and, more and more these days, there is less free time. Arguably, dinner is the event during the day when the distinguishing characteristics of any family unit is most starkly evident. Indeed, the way a family processes dinner manifests and reveals what is most important to the group and to the individuals that are members. Combining their blogs with our ethnographic research approach yielded a “BlogNography” on the American family as we immersed ourselves in their lives through cyberspace and witnessed their account of whether and to what extent their lives have changed and on what path they are heading in the future.

To facilitate this endeavor, we used BlogNog (see, an online platform specifically designed to capitalize on today’s blogging phenomenon and able to leverage the widespread access in homes to broadband connectivity and digital technology to test the viability of conducting an online ethnography.


We recruited 250 respondents to this study vis-à-vis the following screening criteria:
  • Aged 18 or older
  • Not employed in food service industry
  • Not employed in sensitive industry (advertising/public relations, market research)
  • Presence of at least one child aged 17 years old or less in the household
  • Access to the Internet and to a digital camera or mobile phone camera, knowledge of how to upload photos onto a computer, and agreement to do so

The data collection process lasted one week beginning January 14, 2010 and ending January 21, 2010. Each respondent was given three (3) distinct assignments in which to participate, and we inserted specific probing questions to individual respondents based on their blogged responses to our standard questions over the course of this time period. On average, each participant spent a total of 60 to 90 minutes in fulfilling their requirements for this study. Special services were provided, with our appreciation, by Decipher who programmed the screener and managed the recruitment process for us. Likewise, Survey Sampling International provided the list of its panel members from which we randomly sampled to enlist our study respondents. The following is an outline of the Discussion Guide.


Take photos of the inside of the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry (or other places in which you store dry goods) and upload them to your computer, then to your account in BlogNog.

Describe your typical dinner process beginning with grocery shopping, then meal preparation, serving, eating and cleaning up. Include answers to who, what, where, when, and how.

ASSIGNMENT 2: Past and Future

Describe the typical dinner process of your family when you were a child along the same lines as above and compare that to the current dinner process. Then predict the future dinner process for your child(ren) and comment on the influences of current practices on the future.

ASSIGNMENT 3: Projectives using Archetypal Symbols

Choose separate images that best represent:

1. your typical dinner process

2. you in relation to your typical dinner process

3. your IDEAL dinner process

4. how you would be transformed by the IDEAL dinner process if it existed nowadays


Nowadays, getting dinner on the table is not a simple matter; perhaps it never was. Several important factors play a significant role in how the dinner process for any given family unfolds. For some, it is easier than for others, but most balance their job schedule, budget, living condition, cooking space, and culinary skill against their needs for tradition, customs, food preference, nutrition and family togetherness. Also, they do this while abiding by the laws of physics, in terms of time and space, to prepare, serve, eat, and clean up after the meal is consumed.

Some general information was found, such as that “Moms” are still the household member that is the primary dinner chef. It is mainly her that cooks the bacon regardless of whether she brings it home or not. However, more frequently men and children are responsible for supporting roles in the process, nowadays, whether it is in preparation, serving and/or clean up. According to these consumers’ recollections, their mother was usually the one responsible for dinner when they were children.

Another piece of general information found is that people’s schedules have more influence on dinner than it did when these consumers were children growing up in their homes. As such, there is a greater societal reliance on prepared foods from various providers such as grocery stores’ prepared or frozen meals, restaurants’ eat-in or take-out, fast food, drive-thru, etc.

"As much as I wish we can eat like a typical family around the dinner table, we usually eat working on the computer or watching TV. Maybe I’m a bit lazy. I truly dislike the fact that we are not like the traditional family that eats at the dinner table, as I did as a child. I feel like a failure both as a woman and as a wife and mother because of my inabilities. This is not how I want my daughter to think "family life" is supposed to be. Because I am not creative enough nor a well enough cook, our meals usual consist of things like Hamburger Helper, Betty Crocker prepared meal kits or kits I can throw in the crock pot. On occasion I will throw something together from a recipe book but it never comes out right. My ideal dinner would be the whole family gathered around the table to a "nice" well-balance home cooked meal. Talking about our days as we enjoy each other's company. We hardly ever go out to eat simply because I cannot afford it. I just recently lost my job and money is very tight. Clean up usually falls upon me too. Since we do not have a dish washer, I have a whole day (sometimes 2 or 3 days) of dishes that have to be washed by hand."

As family members describe their dinner process, they reveal aspects of their family life that are deeply felt, and it is these aspects that most poignantly describe their plight in life. As they do so, what emerges are a set of factors of varying levels of impact on each family’s unique dinner process. These factors can be dichotomized as external – somewhat beyond the family’s control, such as their budget and job schedule and internal – those factors that families impose upon themselves and somewhat within their control, such as nutrition requirements, family traditions and culinary skill. Below is a description of how each of these factors affects the dinner process of the American Family as well as how they interact with each other in some cases.

External Factors


When budget is not an issue, a family can do whatever it wants in terms of what is eaten and how much it costs. But for most, budget is an important factor such that families must balance the cost of food against their preferences and other financial obligations. Many report they cannot afford to eat out, so often times they cook meals from the food they purchase at a grocery store. Those meals, too, are usually kept simple and relatively inexpensive.

"Cheap ingredients as possible. Use a lot of frozen veggies and try to use chicken more than red meat. Lots of stir fries. Cook at home 99% of time to save money. Buy anything possible on clearance. Currently have 60 plus packages of smoked salmon b/c they were 75% off, make good gifts, keep for years and are healthful. No one is a picky eater, thank goodness. Ideal dinner is home-made sushi. We all enjoy making it, it's delicious and healthful and a whole lot cheaper than going out for sushi, which I've only done once in the past 8 years because I can't afford to."

"We usually eat rice, meat/poultry, beans, pasta and some fish (I usually do not change the foods due to my Autistic children). My partner and children help in the kitchen; whether it is cleaning, prepping or actual cooking of the dinner. We do not go out for dinner due to costs and behavioral issue with my youngest daughter."

Work Schedule

One’s work schedule often plays a major role in the dinner process of the household member in charge of dinner. Arrival time at home has a tendency to dictate what is prepared and eaten. The later that time is in the evening, the more one will rely on quickly prepared meals or ones prepared by someone else, such as restaurant take-out, frozen meals, or grocery store-bought.

"Most the time we don't have enough time to do a homemade meal so we buy a lot of frozen, or canned goods like soups, burritos and chimichangas, or frozen pastas with pre-made canned sauces. On nights we do have time, I'll do from scratch potatoes au gratin or we'll throw together tacos."

Culinary Skill

Those who know how to cook usually enjoy doing so and approach the dinner process with more freedom to accommodate other causal factors such as time and money. Often, they enlist the help of children so that they can teach them how to do it for themselves when they grow up.

"My mom and grandma cooked together as a team and all the smells made our house a home. I try to do the same thing with my children. Cooking to me is a passion and I love to cook. I do not see it as a chore but a loving gesture for my family."

Those that are cooking-challenged are trapped by their lack of skill and struggle with the process, often relying on more expensive prepared meals or less tasty frozen or canned goods.

"I really am not a good cook so dinners are kept simple, spaghetti with sauce, tacos, meatloaf, potatoes, pork chops, kraft mac and cheese, baked chicken from the supermarket, and if time is a huge factor then some type of Tyson chicken, salads, veggies."

Internal Factors


Nutrition-conscious dinner chefs talk about their record of providing “full” or “balanced” meals consisting of meat, chicken, or fish, vegetables and a starch such as pasta or rice. They do so with pride in knowing they are caring for their family and insuring that, for at least one meal in the day, their family is receiving the proper nutrition for healthy living.

"Typical dinner is always eaten at home with the whole family present. We eat out maybe once a year. Everything is made from scratch, no potatoes from a box. I (mom & wife) usually prepare one meal for the entire family and I clean up afterwards. The meals are nutritionally balanced (contain a serving from each of the 4 main food groups)."

Others lament the fact that processed or fast food is too much a part of their diet. They realize this is not the healthiest way to live but do so out of convenience or some other limiting factor.

Family Traditions

Family traditions may be formed on the basis of childhood memories and experiences or from current factors that have emerged to influence today’s dinner process, i.e., attributable to present factors such as budget, time, or space. For the former, dinner chefs expend effort towards keeping old traditions alive for their children because they feel it is important, keeps ethnic, racial, or religious customs alive and prevents them from extinction, reinforces members’ identity and roots, and sometimes even makes them feel young again. New traditions, on the other hand, can be as simple as “Wednesday is spaghetti night” or “we always watch TV when we eat dinner.”

Without fail, family traditions, whether they are old or young, are always considered to be precious. They are referenced as a source of identification for the group and cherished in some way, but only when the family actually comes together for dinner.

"For dinner time every night we eat together even though it is just the two of us, my daughter and I. We normally eat dinner around 5pm every night and my daughter sets the table with forks, cups and plates. We have a meat, a side of usually a carbohydrate (mashed potatoes, rice, couscous, etc.) and a vegetable. I make dinner and then I clean up the table and do the dishes after dinner while my daughter goes and does her homework. My daughter and I discuss our day and if anything is troubling us or has made us very happy that day. This is our time, besides story time, that we spend totally engaged with each other and have no distractions. The phone doesn't get answered if it rings and the TV is off. These are the ideal dinners, in my mind. It couldn't get any better unless of course someone else was doing the cooking and cleaning up."

For those who go their own way for dinner, there are no traditions, past or present, which are cited as a reference point for how dinner is executed nowadays.

"I think it is bad to not all eat together. We no longer communicate with other members of the family. We are off on our own, watching TV, reading or on the computer, instead of talking. Also, when we are all off doing our own thing, the kids do not learn anything about preparing the meals."

Religious Practices

Giving thanks and saying grace over the meal is offered as part of the family dinner process in certain cases. This is a special case of a family tradition that is cherished and deliberately practiced so that it is perpetuated in future family generations.

"I do prefer that we eat at the table b/c it guarantees that we will say grace before our meal. I prepare the meals at least 95% of the time so I usually get my way. This is very important to me because that’s the way I grew up. "

"I come from a typical Italian family. The women in my family are the most prominent cooks. However in my own family my mother also taught me to cook, but then I show my brothers and mom did as well. While the food is being put on the table the kids and others in family go wash up and come to the table. We then ask someone to say the blessing (my stepdads not really into this but he try's for the kids). This is the way we were brought up and there’s not too many family's that do this any more. They are 8 yrs. twins (boy & girl) No matter what is cooked that night it's expected to be eaten to an empty plate or you get again for your next meal no waste in our house. In a way it's good because none of us go anywhere and say sorry I don't like that, we at least try. Thanks to family-manners and old way !!!"


Some families absolutely require all members assemble for dinner at the same time on a nightly basis. Some go to great lengths to do so at the expense of their time and money.

"We are a family of 4 and usually live a life that is very hectic but the rule for dinner at our house is that we all eat together unless it's absolutely un-avoidable. Because of the hectic lifestyle we live a typical dinner is usually fast-food or dinner at a casual restaurant like Applebee's (our favorite restaurant). As far as what we eat it's something from the regular menu at one of these restaurants."

"We eat together as a family every night because we believe it is important for our children to have routines, time with their parents, time to share about their day, and time to eat without the television or other distractions."

However, many families are usually not together at all. These families either do not have any kind of formal meal preparation or one dinner chef prepares food that is reheated by others later on in the evening. Conflicting schedules among family members accounts for this outcome in almost all cases.

"Do we eat together? No, because we are hungry at different times. What is usually eaten? Quick meals (i.e. cereal, frozen dinner, etc...) Cook at home or go out? Eat a lot of meals out, because of sporadic and busy schedules."

Still others, in recalling their past, are hell bent on changing conditions for their own family in terms of togetherness. They are highly motivated to improve the dinner experience, whether by enforcing more schedule synchronization, making the experience a more favorable one for the family members, or improving the food that is shared.

"We did not eat dinner together. Most often ate when we wanted to go make something for ourselves. If dinner was prepared for the family it was prepared and cleaned by my mother. During dinner we would eat alone or in front of the television. I personally wanted to have family meals. At least one meal a day that everyone came together to recap on what happened. I would have liked to have more balanced meals and not something a child could think of and prepare themselves. So that’s how I run things in my home – the right way."

Some even have profoundly negative memories associated with dinner in the distant past and have taken great effort to positively change things and erase those memories.

"We ate together a couple times a week. Often it was fend for yourself. I believe this is because both my parents worked and were overwhelmed. Dinner was unpleasant b/c of the high level of stress and an unhealthy view of food. When a full meal was cooked it was usually baked ham, chicken and broccoli, broiled fish and other yummy well-balanced meals. When it was fend for yourself, it was microwavable meals or snacks, at least once or twice a week we ate fast food meals. (McDonald's, Hardees, or Burger Kind) My stepmother usually prepared the meals and the kids took turns cleaning up as part of our chores. We usually either all ate in the living room watching T.V. or in separate rooms watching T.V. or doing homework. My sister and I found dinner unpleasant b/c we were often criticized for our portions and commented about our weight, even though in hindsight we were within a normal weight range for our age and height. My sister and I are still rather bitter about dinner time in our family so we both try very hard to change things for our own family and children. I’d rather not even think about those days b/c I get angry."


As mentioned, the entire study was conducted online as respondents, representing their own respective family, blogged responses to our questions about the entire process of dinner in their homes: from grocery shopping to food preparation, serving, eating, and cleaning up. We studied their memories of their families when they were children growing up, and finally, posed several questions to have them predict what it will be like for their children when they have families of their own.

We set out to test whether in-depth qualitative research can be conducted online in a manner that produces consumer insights at least as well as traditional in-person methods while capitalizing on current technologies that can improve other research study factors such as cost, speed, effort, and data quality. Since blogging is a mode of communication that has been so widely adopted and comfortable for many consumers, we set our sights on performing the optimal litmus test – an online ethnography; one in which participants were required to tell us about some of the most poignant experiences from their past, confess to aspects of their present lives that they feel are less than perfect, and share their deepest desires for the future, not only for themselves, but more importantly, for their children. We collected hundreds of artifacts in the form of photos of participants’ homes, where they store, prepare, and eat their dinners. Indeed, we received more than we bargained for.

The consumer insights unearthed in this study are foundational in nature. That is to say, they are the kind of data that are used to provide a framework for the development of organizational initiatives such as a creative brief for advertising strategies or the grist for ideation sessions to seed product development pipelines. Quite easily, other objectives could have easily been brought to bear in this study, such as customer experience, naming/positioning, copy testing, and concept/product testing. But doing so was out of scope for this study whose sole purpose was to execute and witness whether online qualitative research, even ethnography, was reachable.

Our conclusion is that it is. Moreover, consumers seem to enjoy the assignments and their participation was worthwhile.

"I did enjoy this survey!!! You really made me look hard at my family's dinner habits and made me think about what I could do to possibly change our family meal time."

"This was a wonderful study, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Very creative!"

"Thank you for the opportunity to participate. This was fun."

"I did enjoy this survey, I realized that I need to make some changes with my family meal time."

  • Ethnography conducted successfully online
  • Rich, symbolic, emotional-based data were collected
  • Data were gathered in the context of the subject of study where artifacts were gathered
  • 250 participants involved and all data were collected in one week
  • Online platform served as blogspace ( for participants to tell their stories
  • Hundreds of photos, videos and mountains of text-based data gathered
  • Projective technique was utilized
  • New solutions and enhanced service to clients’ needs may be provided
  • Could be used to inform the design of quant survey for subsequent phase of research
  • Could be used to provide the basis for creative brief development
  • Could be used to provide grist for product development ideation
  • Could be used for competitive intelligence gathering
  • No traveling, no scheduling, no logistical constraints
  • Fun and engaging for respondents despite the amount of work they were required to do
  • Entirely “green” – virtually no carbon footprint
If we assume that the quality of the data in this study are comparable to that which could have been collected using a traditional in-person process of conducting these ethnographic interviews, then a review of cost and time requirements will provide a more thorough evaluation of the viability of this methodology. The table below is an attempt to directly compare cost and time factors among standard qualitative research methods by holding constant the number of respondents involved in a given study.

While there may be variations on both cost and time from one study to another or one research provider or another, the cell entries in the above table are only estimates based on general experiences and conventional wisdom in the market research industry.

In essence, for approximately the same cost of a round of six focus groups, an online ethnography can be conducted yielding over ten times the amount of respondent input. Generating that much more data drives down the cost per minute per respondent by over 90%. In addition, the total amount of time required to complete the study is reduced by one to two weeks. Likewise, in comparison to F2F ethnography, conducting an online ethnography can cut the cost of the study by about 80% and deliver a final report four times as fast.

This is not to say that all qualitative studies would be better served by an online method. Rather, the online technology that exists today may serve to provide new options, alternatives, and enhanced solutions, whether done in substitution for F2F or in combination with that method. As such, QRCs who embrace the new technologies may be in a position to better serve their clients. Client organizations may benefit through more in-depth consumer insights and more bang for the research buck, speedier-to-market solutions, enhanced geographic reach, and less wear and tear and downtime on its members.