Editor’s note: Shardooli Mann is manager at The Sound: Exploration, Strategy, Innovation, New York. 

Virtual qualitative research methodologies existed pre-COVID, and researchers have relied on them to achieve specific client objectives. If we needed to better understand people’s relationship with a category ... hello, digital diaries! Get perspectives from small business owners? I see you, virtual IDIs! Share packaging concepts? ... No thanks, virtual focus groups. We’re booking a flight! 

Because of COVID-19, the entire industry of research practitioners was forced to go all in with exclusively virtual research, like it or not. We collectively reassessed our relationships with it to make it work. 

The great news is that we are making it work virtually! In the last year, researchers have had amazing conversations and learned what was needed to find success. But with the vaccine rolling out, the ability to connect with people IRL is just around the corner (fingers crossed). While researchers have been surprised by what we can achieve virtually, there are some things that thrive in-person that we’re all clamoring to get back to.

Here’s a rundown of some of what I loved and loathed about virtual research, and how my team sees things playing out in the future.

Virtual research: The big picture

What we loved:

  • Continued, rich connections. Researchers can still connect with people and hear about their lives and needs despite the pandemic! Hungry to converse with anyone who is not their pets or partner, they’re more open and vulnerable than ever. 

What we loathed:

  • Tech barriers. Online platforms continue to be challenging for those with a historic lack of access to tech or quality internet.
  • Tech issues. From slow internet connections to login challenges, we’re never free of tech glitches – especially when it comes to less tech savvy audiences (ever have a participant get lost in a virtual break-out room? I have ... and it’s as frustrating/hilarious as it sounds!)

Virtual focus groups

What we loved:

  • Broader recruitment. A diverse spectrum of people in one "room" – including people in lesser tapped and rural markets.
  • Comfort. From the comforts of home, participants not only open up but have access to products that they can bring into the conversation.
  • Platforms with embedded backrooms: Streamlining the backroom experience, negating the need to juggle multiple platforms to have direct client contact.

What we loathed:

  • Unnatural conversational rhythm. The often interrupted and awkward rhythm of conversation in online groups limits our ability to truly leverage a natural group dynamic - the hallmark of what's awesome about groups!
  • Small groups only. The tricky reality of virtual moderating means it’s messy to speak with more than four participants at once. We miss IRL groups of six!
  • Conducting stimulus-heavy research. Gallery style stimulus testing and interactive research (packaging, UX testing) proves challenging when virtual.

Digital diaries

What we loved:

  • Rich multimedia collections. First-hand narratives, photos and videos provide nuance and depth.
  • Broad-reaching. A broad perspective from a diverse sample on a large number of topics is easier through the Q&A and upload format.
  • Creativity. More time for participants to respond encourages creative thinking during projects.
  • Detailed engagement. This method has proved to be pandemic-proof, with responses and completion rates higher than ever! We’ll continue using it for a robust sample.

What we loathed…

  • Nothing! We use digital diaries the same way with or without COVID.

Self-shot ethnographies (vs. in-homes)

What we loved:

  • Unfiltered candor. Participants feel even more comfortable being candid during self-shot video diaries, particularly on sensitive topics like debt or illness.
  • Integrated into their routine. Participants can more naturally choose how they capture routines as they happen vs. making them happen while we’re in their homes.
  • Self-expression. Self-shot video gives them freedom to express themselves in creative or personalized ways.

What we loathed:

  • Losing the ethnographic advantage. In-person in-homes can lead to observable yet unspoken truths and follow-up questions (often lost in a virtual experience).
  • Building rapport. In-person helps build a connection that encourages free-flowing conversation, dynamic, in-the-moment probes and organic information volunteered.

A mixed bag

Research during the COVID-19 pandemic put virtual methodologies to the test, forcing us to experience the limitations and strengths of these versions of research, but also allowing us to focus on our strategies for the future.

  • Focus groups: Some types of focus groups do really well virtually (for example, conversations to understand needs, wants and opinions) while others must be done in person (for example, concept evaluation with tactile stim).
  • Digital diaries and IDIs: We’ll carry on!
  • Online ethnography: When it comes to topics that are sensitive or hard for participants to talk about, we’ll use self-shot in-home methods to help them open-up and share.
  • IRL in-homes: Observe their home and life, when in deep exploratory or illumination mode, and/or when looking to probe on unexpected moments.

Though already steeped in virtual methods, researchers, like our participants, have been learning more about virtual research! 

Virtual research has been a success, but it’s also a mixed bag. Some things worked really well online that we didn't expect – offering flexibility, convenience and richness. However, there are still things that we can't wait to get back to in-person, to better capture the subtleties, context and nuance that defines qualitative research.

If this experience has taught everyone anything, it’s to continue evolving, experimenting and exploring new tools! A more efficient method might be right around the corner!


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