How Qualitative Research Is Evolving in Response to Social Distancing

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    Staying nimble in response to an ever-changing world is nothing new, but 2020 has brought unprecedented challenges to businesses large and small across every sector of the economy. As companies have adapted and, in some cases, reinvented how people interact within organizations, protocols for engaging with customers have changed just as drastically. With non-essential face-to-face interactions essentially off the table for now, qualitative researchers have felt the impact acutely.

    To get a sense of how researchers are handling qualitative nowadays and what the post-pandemic future might look like, we asked five qualitative research leaders for their perspectives.

    Migration to Digital Methods Is Accelerating

    Qualitative research is no stranger to the digital world at this point, but traditional, face-to-face approaches had not been entirely supplanted, at least not until this year. With remote engagement the only option available, researchers have been forced to really dig in and learn how to get the most out of the digital toolkit. As it turns out, that shift is consistent with good qualitative practice. George Zdanowicz, CEO of market and social research agency Enhance Research, observes:

    “The best qualitative research has always matched the approach with the way people interact with one another. Traditionally, that’s been through face-to-face approaches, but that has really evolved over recent years to encompass ways that people interact digitally. To a large degree, COVID-19 has sped up the migration to alternative digital qualitative approaches. While qualitative research is just as, if not more, important than ever, we’re definitely seeing a rapid shift to approaches based on digital interaction, whether using text, video, or voice. If or when we return to a more normal environment, I expect that some of the traditional approaches will return, but the genie is now out of the bottle, and digital approaches will be a bigger part of the mix than they were.”

    Digital Qualitative Is Evolving Beyond Merely Replacing Face-to-Face

    Initially used as convenient, time- and/or money-saving substitutes for face-to-face research, digital methods are coming into their own as unique alternatives that offer specific advantages over traditional approaches. And this offers researchers opportunities to develop and refine their techniques. For example, asynchronous sessions conducted over several days can yield deeper and more multifaceted insights than face-to-face interviews or real-time video sessions. Tom Woodnutt, Founder of global insight and strategy consultancy Feeling Mutual, says:

    “Webcam fatigue will fuel a surge in asynchronous online qual. Companies will realize that asynchronous online and mobile methods that run across a few days get more depth, form a more real-world context, and produce more vivid outputs. Researchers will need to focus less on how to replicate face-to-face groups online, and more on how to exploit the uniqueness of digital tools.”

    Remote Connections Promote Closeness

    The key to effective qualitative research has always been navigating psychological barriers and establishing rapport with respondents. Conventional wisdom has held that face-to-face engagement makes it easier for skilled moderators to elicit candid participation more quickly and thoroughly. With online methods the only option for now, researchers are discovering new opportunities to get closer faster, and capture more depth and nuance in the respondent’s experience, providing richer context for the research findings. Danielle Todd, Insight Director at insight consultancy We Are Relish, observes:

    “COVID-19 has forced the research industry to focus on what is at the heart of great research–and that’s people. Shifting to a greater use of digital methodologies has revealed opportunities to more easily break down psychological barriers to get closer to people. One-on-one interviewing online, as well as group activities, have driven a more intimate conversation and grittiness, right there in people’s homes, giving us greater access to the ‘realness’ we seek. There will always be a place for face-to-face and it will return as time progresses; however, the great opportunities of digital and home-based research are to focus on the context of that more personal space, to really get under the skin of what makes people tick.”

    Demand Is Increasing for More Holistic Approaches

    As qualitative researchers set aside face-to-face methodologies for the time being and focus exclusively on digital tools, they are discovering new opportunities to combine approaches that yield more comprehensive insights. This is driving new appreciation for the potential of multi-method designs to generate broader and deeper understanding of respondents’ lives. Mike D’Abramo, Research Management Director at insights advisory firm Sklar Wilton & Associates, states:

    “Though we experienced a temporary slowdown in qualitative research as a result of COVID-19, demand quickly rebounded as researchers realized they needed to position their businesses to meet new needs and new short- and long-term strategies. Fortunately, at Sklar Wilton & Associates, a significant portion of our groups, interviews, and self-ethnography work was already being conducted online or via telephone. The biggest change we’ve seen is increased demand and appreciation for more holistic, multi-method approaches that reveal the entirety of the lived experience of participants. Compared to previous years, we’re seeing an acceleration of the innovation process.”

    Qualitative Meets Agile

    While the digital toolkit has been expanding each year, it took the arrival of COVID-19 to get many qualitative researchers to rethink their approaches and embrace digital methods across the board. And technology is delivering. Dave Carruthers, CEO of video analytics software company Voxpopme, notes:

    “This is the year of agile qualitative. Technology has finally delivered solutions that can provide rich qualitative insights with speed, value and scale. With in-person off the table, brands have scrambled to find solutions to replace their traditional approaches. At Voxpopme, we’ve been doing Agile Qual for years, using asynchronous video interviews with fully automated analytics to help many Fortune 500 brands transform their qual approaches. Studies are turned around in under 24 hours and typically cost 70% less than traditional studies. Agile Qual is the new normal.”

    Clearly, what might have initially seemed to be a hindrance to qualitative research has revealed new opportunities for richer and more robust results. Regardless of when we get back to “normal,” innovation in the field of qualitative research will continue, and we want to thank the market research professionals who shared their perspectives with us.

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