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It is a wonderful time to be in the qualitative research business, what
with the social media explosion and the cultural behavior that has
evolved, the advancement of technology such as widespread broadband
connectivity and digital technology, and the propagation of online
qualitative research platforms that have arisen and grown over this
period of time. Surely, the research industry has come to appreciate
and leverage the confluence of these factors that have driven down study
cost and cycle times, and increased the amount and quality of
qualitative data that researchers are able to collect by shifting
methods from traditional face-to-face (F2F) to online.
Truly as a result, the numbers of different reasons that force the
conscientious research provider to recommend and depict in their
proposals a F2F method over online are becoming increasingly
threadbare. Instead, researchers have embraced the fact that people all
over the world have become comfortable communicating in
computer-mediated environments, have developed the skills needed to do
so, have become more inclined to disclose personal information about
themselves, and readily use PCs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones that
enable them to augment what they text with multimedia-based forms of
expression such as with photos, images, and videos.
Ironically, the early adopters of “asynchronous online qualitative
research” began their entrée into this new methodology in contrast to
standard focus group tradition which had been entrenched in the minds of
marketers for decades. They started to use bulletin board platforms
for their studies and, in the process, tried to simulate focus group
interactions by requiring participants to login in multiple times each
day the study ran so that they could respond to questions posted and
follow-up on the moderator’s probes in a manner that is actually a poor
approximation of real time group discussion.
Worse than that, because of the design and user-interface of bulletin
boards, moderators allowed themselves to change the way they conduct
qualitative research and dilute their skill at getting people to open up
and spill their guts. They did this by accommodating the tool rather
than demanding the tool accommodate them. As the term “bulletin board”
connotes, a space for a single question is provided and space below that
is provided for an answer. Each question is tracked on a dashboard for
the moderator allowing him/her to know whether each and every single
question has been responded to by all participants. The end result is
that the research itself becomes a series of open-ended questions that
would otherwise appear in closed-ended quantitative surveys and not the
same in richness and spirit of a truly qualitative study in which people
tell their stories, describe their greatest aspirations and darkest
nightmares, and provide a genuine, human experience that yield insights
that marketers can leverage to make their organizations more
Visually, this bulletin board format appears to the participant as
question space, answer space, question space, answer space, and so on.
Each question space is shown and reacted to in terse responses and not
essays and stories that analysts can harvest for hidden truths about the
subject matter. Participants tend to see short questions and provide
short answers; the moderator asks “why” and the participant answers
“because.” The exchange becomes laden with forebrain material and never
reaches the depths of emotional or reptilian brain responses.
To get the most out of your qualitative research, begin with an online platform that resembles familiar social media sites (such
as Facebook) because that is where people tend to openly disclose
things about themselves, opine on some of the most sensitive and
controversial topics and, in their own style, get their opinions across
loud and clear.
Avoid bulletin boards that are designed as glorified questionnaire-based platforms.
One of the hidden secrets about bulletin boards is that they are
created by IT programmers whose careers and legacy are in programming
surveys. In fact, theirs are some of the most diametrically-opposed
types of mindsets relative to right-brain thinkers such as qualitative
research professionals and moderators who thrive in non-linear thinking
and creative applications and look to “read between the lines” on much
of what is said by participants.
Avoid the need for real-time interaction in asynchronous qualitative studies.
Using these platforms will not produce the optimal outcome for that
need; instead, allow people to leverage the convenience of finding time
in their day to sit down, relax, get comfortable, read the questions
posted, think about their answers and weigh in as heavily as they want.
Let the topic of study wash over them and produce lengthier
descriptions of their views and opinions; let their stories be told when
it is convenient for them to do so, usually at night when their home is
quiet, nothing is vying for their attention, and when they are dressed
in their pajamas and have their feet up, all comfy and cozy. Just make
sure you instruct participants during recruitment the exact days when
question guide content will be posted and what they need to do to
fulfill their responsibilities and collect their incentives.
Forget about tracking responses by all participants to every single question posed.
That is unnecessary, laborious and distracting from the main goal of
qualitative research, and way too anal-retentive in mindset. Leave that
sort of endeavor to quantitative survey research. Instead, group sets
of questions together and pose them visually, as a set, to
participants. When they see that much text all together, they will be
more inclined to produce more stories and less “Tarzan grunts” that are
highly rational, but only scratch the surface of how they feel.
Last, always make sure you give participants an opportunity to
do what they do really well – show their set of social media cultural
artifacts whether in photos, images that represent, projective
characterizations, and video-based examples of what they do, experience,
and find interest in. Push back on IT programmers and
developers that have reigned in bulletin board leasing for the past 15
years who cannot help but have you change the way you do things. For
their sake, they will make you alter your course away from the tried and
true specialized skills that make qualitative research so unique and
critical in understanding the human condition, and instead, have you do
things their way.