Choosing between in-person and virtual research

Conducting virtual qualitative research became more common as researchers adjusted to the pandemic. Today, virtual, in person and hybrid research methods are used to complete projects as effectively as possible. Quirk’s has compiled a list of seven tips to help you decide whether to conduct your qualitative research in person or virtually. 

Tip 1. Decide if your research methods can be done virtually or remotely 

There can be overlap in the research methods used in virtual and in-person research, but some work more effectively with one than the other.  

Potential virtual methods

Virtual focus groups, ethnographies, observations and digital diaries can all be done online. According to Tom Donnelly, Jason Mandelbaum and Hiba Rahman-Vyas, authors of “The power of (virtual) observation and iteration,” a benefit of virtual ethnographies and observations is that they can be conducted with a more broad and diverse sample of participants that can participate on their own time. Shardooli Mann, author of “Virtual qual: What we loved and loathed,” says that researchers enjoy creating connections through online research but many technology barriers and challenges exist. While many virtual focus groups are successful, some may result in unnatural conversations. Some research methods are done better virtually while others can be challenging to conduct online.

Potential in-person methods 

While many methods can be done both virtually or in-person, some are easier to conduct while face-to-face with your team and participants. In “Despite what you’ve heard, qualitative is not dead” by Marisa Pope, she argues that some research methods cannot be effectively conducted using virtual methods. This includes taste tests, jury and legal research and, sometimes, observations and interviews. Remote participants may not be as engaged with the research as those who are participating in person. 

Pope argues that when deciding between in-person vs. remote qualitative research, consider what you are comfortable sacrificing. For example, you can conduct a virtual focus group but is it worth having an unnatural flow of conversation? 

Tip 2. Determine what your current technologies or platforms will work best with 

It is important to use the right platform for your virtual or in-person qualitative project. If you are conducting virtual research, the platform you use should be accessible and easy to use. If your technologies are more intricate and take longer to pick up, it may be best to choose in-person research as you and the research team would be the main users.  

Tip 3. Take research settings into consideration

When choosing whether to conduct virtual or in-person research, know whether you, your team and potential participants have the appropriate settings to properly participate. In “Qualitative research and the decline of the conversation,” author Layla Shea says that having the appropriate time and space allows for better, uninterrupted conversations with individuals. 

If choosing virtual qualitative research, it’s important to consider if your participants have the materials they need to participate in your research including a reliable internet connection and the required technology. If choosing in-person qualitative research, think about where and how your participants will meet you and how you will accommodate transportation/scheduling conflicts.  

Tip 4. Keep consumer mindsets in mind

In the article “Online research is unlikely to become the new normal” by Sean Bisceglia, he emphasizes the importance of understanding the range of consumer mindsets when conducting in-person or online marketing research. Participant mindsets differ depending on the environment they are in. According to Bisceglia, when testing a protein bar in-person at a gym, the participant may enjoy it and its effects. If a virtual participant eats the same protein bar at home, they may dislike its effects. It is crucial to keep the consumer mindset in mind and understand that choosing in-person vs. online may result in participants bringing different perspectives to the table.  

Tip 5. Understand your participants comfort levels 

As we continue to adjust to the post-COVID-19 world, many researchers and research participants may still feel uneasy participating fully in-person. These varying comfort levels may play a large part in your decision to choose in-person or virtual qualitative research. BJ Kirschner, author of “Implications from the switch from in-person to mobile qual,” argues that many people within the health care sector were largely affected by the transition from in-person to virtual. Many patients, caregivers and even medical professionals had to adjust to new technologies in order to transition to online or hybrid options. Kirschner says that many patients were not as comfortable participating online, some opting out of the self-recording section of research even though they were comfortable being recorded when participating in-person. It is important to understand who you are working with and the level of comfort before deciding to go fully online or in-person.  

Tip 6. Do not choose virtual solely based on convenience

While many believe that online research may be the easier option, do not choose it because of its seeming convenience. Pope says that advantages to online qualitative research include no geographical restrictions or travel expenses. However, she argues that some research methods are not as effective when conducted virtually and establishes that non-verbal communication itself can play a large factor in choosing in-person research. Researchers may be able to conduct effective marketing research online with a broader range of participants but if you don't meet your participants you may risk losing connections. Participants may not feel as inclined to be responsive if they don't feel connected to you as a researcher. When making the decision, look at the whole picture and don’t base your choice off of convenience. 

Tip 7. Be flexible with individuals who prefer hybrid research

It is important to be open and understanding of individuals who can participate through a hybrid approach instead of fully in-person or fully virtual. In “Making the case for the return to in-person work” by Rick Grimaldi, he says that many people got comfortable working from home as it allowed them more flexibility. Offering hybrid options for people who request them may offer you new participant perspectives.

Virtual and in-person qualitative research have many benefits. Taking these seven tips into consideration can help you choose what is best for your project.