For almost 20 years, professionals in our industry have been predicting the death of traditional, in-person qualitative research. And for almost 20 years, they’ve all missed the mark. In this age of COVID-19, have we finally come to the last days of in-person qualitative? And if we have, what does that mean for the research buyers who rely on that methodology to make decisions?

Obviously, as an owner/partner in multiple facilities, I have a vested interest in seeing face-to-face qualitative remain an essential tool researchers use to gather insights. But more than that, as someone who minored in psychology, I understand the complexity of the human psyche. For decades, researchers have known human interaction is necessary to identify hidden drivers. Can virtual discussions deliver at the same level? I don’t think so.

As a stopgap, an interim solution, perhaps even a long-term inexpensive option, sure. But as a permanent replacement? I’m not sure that’s in anyone’s best interests, especially research buyers.

There are obvious advantages to online-based qualitative: no geographical restrictions (which means those outside larger cities can be included); no travel expenses (and reduced moderator fees?); easily sortable data via polls. 

But consider this: I was recently on a Zoom call with a group of other facility owners when one suggested in-person focus groups might “just be a method that’s no longer used.” Immediately, tears came to my eyes but I didn’t want anyone to know. So I tipped my head away from my camera and took a sip of water while I dried my eyes. Afterwards, I asked someone from the call if she’d noticed I was crying. She was shocked. “No, I just thought you were thirsty,” she said.

You see, it’s just too easy to hide your emotions when you’re being viewed through a camera lens.

If you search “non-verbal communication” online, you will find many sources (including the New York Times) espousing that up to 93% of our communication is non-verbal. This belief stems from studies conducted in 1967 by Albert Mehrabian and while some argue the studies’ results are questionable (and that Mehrabian’s work has been misinterpreted), we all know body language plays an important part in non-verbal communication.

During video groups, researchers are prone to miss clues that someone in the group isn’t comfortable, disagrees or has another perspective. Why? Because while facial expressions such as pursed, parting or biting lips, nose flares and raised eyebrows indicate disagreement, the strongest signs of conflicting emotion happen below the neck: clenched fists, crossed arms or legs or sitting further back. When all one can see is someone’s face many of these subtleties are missed.

Even if we dismiss non-verbal communication as a reason to retain in-person research methods, there are certain types of studies that simply cannot be conducted as effectively virtually and offer research buyers the same insights: usability/UX; prototype; devices; jury and legal research; taste tests.

And then there’s the question of attention level. When one conducts in-facility discussion groups or interviews, we have successfully eliminated outside distractions and have the full attention of the participants. Until they’re dismissed, they actively participate in creative problem-solving with one another.

Conversely, clients are quickly learning that remote participants are not as engaged. Who can blame them? Dogs, children, doorbells, deliveries, off-screen devices…any and all sorts of distractions contribute to reduced engagement. Not to mention slow internet connections, buffering, frozen faces, poor audio and other challenges we face when connecting virtually.

So what is an acceptable trade-off? In facility, we verify a person’s ID; this isn’t done online. Does that matter? What about security? Will clients be comfortable with sensitive, proprietary or intellectual property being shared in cyberspace? It’s too easy for someone to take screen shots of content and post on blogs or social media. What about the depth of insights?

I’ve always described qualitative research as an inch wide and a mile deep. Can we expect the same depth of insights in a virtual environment? And if not, we must ask ourselves: What are we comfortable sacrificing? After all, it’s the large corporations that invest in qualitative that will suffer the consequences if the sacrifice is too great. 

As costly as exploratory research can be, I’ve always wondered if the development, production, launch and quick removal of New Coke in the 1980s was worth it. The researchers focused on blind tastings (even in their focus groups) and completely missed the emotional tie consumers had to the brand itself. Ultimately that led to one of the most chaotic product launches in history and one that’s still analyzed today. 

No, I don’t believe COVID-19 has put the final nail in the coffin of in-person research. Until moderators are comfortable and companies lift travel restrictions, I believe we’ll continue to see online qualitative utilized to keep the product development process ticking along. Some facilities may not survive. Perhaps some will consolidate multiple facilities into a single location. Some may band together.

But as I wrote in a 2018 sponsored-content article for Quirk’s entitled “Qualitative isn’t dead”:

Observation, awareness, social constructs and psychology combine in perfect harmony to offer research buyers a glimpse of the participants’ worlds. And while technological advances such as the internet and streaming have opened up new pathways of communication, none has surpassed good old-fashioned conversation for gaining insight.

If anything, this temporary hiatus from in-person qualitative could show research buyers just how integral the method is to good decisions – and why its death should be far from imminent.