We have recently been doing a good deal of qualitative research in an online environment and for those of us who have been doing face to face interviews and groups for many years the move to online presents both benefits and challenges. We thought it might be useful to share our thoughts and experiences with you about.
When to Go Online
One of the benefits of online qualitative research is that it allows us to undertake, for example, group discussions with geographically dispersed and quite niche audiences. We are currently talking to a university client about doing some research with students who turned down an offer from them and ended up going to another university. This is a great example of an audience which is very specific, quite niche and certainly spread across the country. Our chances of getting these students together in one place to conduct a group discussion are very small. An online discussion group, however, is entirely possible. For a professional regulator client we are also currently conducting online research but this time for a different reason – because of the inherent anonymity it allows. The research is with professional, busy people and it covers issues that they would in all likelihood not feel comfortable talking about openly with other professionals and / or in front of their regulator. An online approach allows them to participate with complete anonymity. They can also log-in and join the discussion at a time to suit them – another big advantage when trying to recruit professionals.
There are essentially two options in terms of group discussion formats – a real-time online group or a bulletin board. The first means that all participants and the moderator log in at the same time and conduct an online chat in real time; the second allows people to log in, within a set time period, and join an online debate as and when they wish. Both are very effective and the choice is dependent on the speed with which the research needs to be completed and the nature and degree of moderation that is likely to be required.
In addition to the benefits of being able to access audiences that could not be convened face to face, online qualitative research has other advantages. One is certainly that it is possible to allow individuals to participate in some elements without the influence of the wider group. We have found online groups particularly good for testing communications materials. The software allows individual participants to view and virtually mark-up and annotate draft communications in isolation and then to discuss their reactions with the wider group. There are also huge benefits in terms of participant honesty and open-ness…anonymity removes inhibitions and participants are willing to admit to thoughts and feelings that they simply wouldn’t reveal when sitting face to face.
Online groups are vey quick to convene and a transcript is immediately available – so speed is a major advantage. In addition, any number of observers can log-in and clients can also send their ‘burning’ additional questions direct to the moderator, without participants being disturbed or even aware of this.
All methodologies of course do have disadvantages. You may have expected there to be a cost advantage to online qualitative but actually there often isn’t a great deal of difference. The savings in terms of venues and catering tend to be cancelled out by the costs of software and systems. The main disadvantage we have found is that, very simply, people do not type as quickly or as eloquently as they speak….and of course the nuances can be lost and the non-verbal cues, that can be picked up face to face, are simply missing. This may seem a minor point but as this recent article points out, its value can be enormous in some cases.
Nevertheless, we are finding increasing interest in and uses for online qualitative research….as with all methods you have to be careful to use it in the right situations and bear in mind the limitations of the approach. If you’re interested in making use of online qualitative methods, please do get in touch.