The Evolution of Qualitative Research

Editor’s note: This article is an automated speech-to-text transcription, edited lightly for clarity. 

Poet and author, Maya Angelou famously said, “You can't really know where you're going until you know where you have been." Jeff Walkowski’s session from the February 1, 2024, Quirk’s Virtual – Innovation series is a great explanation of the history of qualitative research.  

Walkowski, retired qualitative research veteran, started the presentation with the start of qualitative research and how it has evolved over the years. He then gave his predictions of where this type of research is headed.  

You can watch the recording of this session or read the full transcript below.  

Session transcript 

Joe Rydholm: 

Hi everybody and welcome to our session, “How Qual Has Evolved and What it Means to You.” 

I'm Quirk’s editor, Joe Rydholm. Before we get started, let's quickly go over the ways you can participate in today's discussion. You can use a chat tab to interact with other attendees during the session. And you can use a Q&A tab to submit questions to our presenter during the session and we'll answer as many as we have time for during the Q&A portion. 

Our session today is presented by Jeff Walkowski and Qual Core. We hope you enjoy it.  

Jeff Walkowski: 

Hello, my name is Jeff Walkowski, and I am your presenter for this session on how qualitative research has evolved over time, what it means to you and what kinds of additional evolutions do we think might happen over the coming years.  

So, let me go ahead and give a little introduction about myself. I have more than 45 years in my entire career, and it's all been spent in some form of research. The first 10 years or so were spent in quant.  

Toward the tail end of that period, I had discovered qualitative research, not having heard about it before, and I pursued it. I was doing both qualitative and quantitative for a while. And for the last 30 years I've been almost exclusively focused on qualitative.  

So, I've had a lot of experience in watching changes in qualitative research over that 30-year period.  

But I also had the pleasure of being mentored by those who had experience doing qualitative research as early as the 1960s. So, I've got a good perspective on how things have evolved and I'm going to share that with you.  

Before I get to that, just a couple other things. I am going to go over some classic or if you will, original innovations and then spend more time on evolutionary things that have happened more recently.  

And in the process of going over those, I hope that you will see what I see about qualitative and that is that the changes represent that qualitative research as an industry is very adaptable, is resilient and it will continue to be more important. It's a very collaborative type of industry.  

So, keep those three thoughts in mind as we go through the rest of the presentation, and hopefully I'll remember to come back to this and remind you of this. But this is all good news about qualitative and I hope you will agree with me that those really are the cases.  

So, qualitative has had many innovations in its lifespan thus far. And let's go over very quickly some of the things that have happened in the past. I'm not going to get into this in very much detail, but did you know, for example, that qualitative research was primarily IDIs? 

It wasn't until like the ‘50s and ‘60s that doing focus groups was a new way of handling marketing research. And once you do groups, then facilities come into being. So, those facilities weren't there to begin with. It's something that we take for granted that's a staple of our industry, but they weren't always there.  

Also, did you know that originally the only, or virtually the only moderators for qualitative research were Ph.D. folks?  

Probably with a degree in psychology, but of course as we now know, yes, there are certainly a lot of people with a Ph.D. doing qualitative research, but we are a more mainstream type set of professionals. We come from various backgrounds. Some have a graduate degree, some not, but it's made for a more level playing field if you want to put it that way, in terms of who gets to be a moderator.  

Also, there are degree programs in marketing research. They don't specialize in qualitative. Their emphasis of course is on quantitative because that's the bigger share of the marketing research pie. But only in the ‘80s did graduate programs in marketing research become available.  

And I was at a presentation last week at the QRCA conference in Denver and one of the presenters mentioned that there are now 50 master level programs in marketing research. I don't recall whether those are all in North America, but regardless it's a large number. And when you consider that in the early ‘80s, there were none that's significant.  

In addition to those degree programs, which don't necessarily concentrate in qualitative, there are moderator training programs that have emerged, and they came about in the ‘80s. I was trained by RIVA and I am a current RIVA trainer. You're probably familiar with the Burke Institute as well. That came about shortly after RIVA and I co-founded the online Moderator Training Institute in the very early 2000s, and that was designed to provide moderator training specifically to people who are interested in moderating online.  

So more recently, and I'm not going to go over these in detail right now, but these are the types of things that have happened in the past. Oh, let's say they started in the ‘80s rather than starting in the ‘60s. And some of them are still going on strong. And what I'm going to do is tell you a little bit, give you a little background on three of these. I think I've got time to go over the first three that are here.  

Actually, I'm going to pick the three I'll go over. Just go over what's been happening in that particular development, how we benefit from those changes in those developments, and take a quick peek at what I feel are possibilities for how that will continue to evolve in the future.  

Let's start with moderators becoming specialists. What I mean by that is that many years ago, probably even when I started doing moderating in the 1980s, moderators could trade projects with one another because they were equally skilled and there was no real need amongst the buyers or users of qualitative research to make sure that moderators had a particular subject matter expertise.  

So, with that in mind, as the number of moderators in the world have grown, and that is certainly the case, it becomes quite natural for the professionals to latch on to and pursue an area of expertise and hang their hat on that particular expertise to differentiate themselves from the other moderators that are out there.  

So, that's what has happened, and I think it continues to happen. And just in terms of a little bit of additional background, just to give some examples of how moderators or qualitative researchers do differentiate themselves from one another.  

One is by industry. Some moderators specialize in the automotive sector or the financial services sector or pharmaceuticals or restaurants or entertainment.  

Another is the method. They'll specialize in a method. And that really defines how I differentiate myself. First of all, there were those that concentrate on in-person qualitative and those that declare themselves as experts in online. I'm an online guy. I started doing those way back, and we'll talk more about online later, but it could also be that some people are experts at brainstorming, idea generating or creative problem solving. Those are all pretty much the same things within in-person. Some people might specialize in only doing groups or really prefer IDIs, and they'll do those.  

So, what else?  

Qualitative researchers can differentiate themselves by the audience, the people that we are talking to. It could be kids versus teens versus seniors. It could be by minority groups, whether it be like LGBTQ+ or whether it be different ethnic groups like African Americans or Hispanic or Asians.  

And as you can imagine, those who speak a particular language or are familiar with a particular community are going to have an easier time saying, ‘Hey, I am really good at doing groups with the Hmong population.’ I know about the Hmong population because I live in Minneapolis and we have the largest Hmong population outside of Southeast Asia, but I could go on and on about that.  

Also, one other way that qualitative researchers can differentiate themselves from each other is by focusing on a particular aspect of the process of qualitative. Especially if you talk about independent qualitative researchers in general.  

In the past they did everything. They took care of proposal writing, they took care of designing the screener, finding the sample, finding a facility, writing the screener, writing the discussion guide, moderating, taking care of getting the transcripts, doing the analysis, writing the report and presenting the results.  

Now there are people that say, ‘I'm really good at project management and that's all I'm going to do.’ And they do that. And there are also qualitative researchers who have had a lot of experience, and this tends to happen based on what I've seen more amongst the more veterans amongst the moderator population. They don't want to travel as much, but they're good at report writing. So, they'll say, ‘I'll write your reports for you.’  

So, there are many ways the specialization can take form, and let's look at how that plays out and what the benefits of that are.  

First, for practitioners, I'm thinking mostly moderators, but they could declare themselves experts in a particular area. Again, in a competitive situation, if I, for example, have done hundreds of groups in the automotive sector with half a dozen different automotive manufacturers, well that makes me more saleable if I approach a new client with an automotive manufacturer that I hadn't worked with before.  

In terms of benefits to the users and the buyers, the fact that they are using what I'll call a subject matter expertise means that they have to spend less time bringing that moderator despite their superior skills at moderation, but giving them the background that they're going to require to be able to effectively do a group and not be caught like a deer caught in the headlights of a car when participants in a group or an IDI are using language that's very common in that industry or for that product or service category that they don't have any particular experience with or knowledge of.  

So, they don't have to spend the time doing that. They get to trust somebody to get that work done. And this means that the analysis and the reporting part should go a lot more smoothly. And when the buyer or the user of the information gets that report, it will probably require less massaging or revisions than if the report came from somebody who did not have the subject matter expertise.  

So where are things going? Where do we see things going in terms of specialty?  

I only see that there will be increased specialization. It's not going to go away. People or moderators especially will be able to do groups in different categories, but they're probably going to be less of a generalist than they have been in the past, and they will tend towards specialists.  

And so, if you look at the whole population of moderators who are out there, they are probably a smaller share of them over time, I believe they will be declaring themselves generalists. There'll always be a need for a generalist, but I think as we move on, we'll move more toward needing a specialist.  

So, let's move on to another one. And this is all about online, which is something that I have a particular interest in because that's what I'm known for. But some things I'd like to go over here are the following.  

Online focus groups have been around since the mid-1990s. It's about 30-years- old.  There was some resistance to it in the beginning, some strong resistance, but it gained ground and continued. It's never gone away, but there was always some reluctance on the part of some moderators and some buyers to trust online qualitative.  

It wasn't until spring of 2020 when we had the lockdown due to COVID-19, that buyers and users of research couldn't use focus group facilities anymore, and they still had decisions to make and they wanted information to help them make smart decisions.  

So, video chats came to the rescue, and they saved the day. Even to this day, I will have to admit that an online focus group or IDI is not as engaging as being in person with someone. So, that's a drawback to the method, but it still is.  

Many will feel, and they've been convinced by their experiences after COVID-19 ensued that it is a viable option that could get us a long way toward the information we need if not all the way there. And one of the things that I've noticed, at least in my own practice, I could be wrong, and I have not been able to find any statistics on this, I wish there were, but my sense is that especially over the past five, six years, there's been a movement away from using online for focus groups and instead using the online capabilities to do IDIs.  

That's neither good nor bad, but it's an observation in terms of what's good and bad about this. Let's see, actually, I'm focusing on the benefits. Benefits to practitioners are that with online there's less, if not any, travel involved, which means that they could be more productive.  

They're not spending time commuting back and forth to an airport or to a hotel, sitting on a plane waiting, waiting at the gate, dealing with cancellations and delays, et cetera. And because there's less travel involved in general, it's less expensive. The projects cost the same, but you strike out that line item for travel and you've saved a lot of money.  

And the other benefit to practitioners is that it's yet another tool that they could say they've got some experience in which can differentiate themselves from other moderators who are out there.  

You'll see that the users and buyers have similar benefits. They're not traveling either, so they could be more productive. And because there's less travel involved, they're spending less on those projects which enable them to stretch their marketing research budgets.  

They could either do more groups per project or they could perhaps add on a project or two in the course of the year that they could fund by saving money from the previous online projects that were done.  

And there are many benefits to online, and I could go on and on about that, but one of the other key ones here is that there are no geographic limitations. You don't have to worry about making sure you pick the right two or three markets to get a good feel for how the nation feels.  

Nope. You've got access to the entire geography and that is a big benefit.  

So, what's next here?  

Well, one of the things that I've been noticing is that, and you have as well I'm sure, is that we are all more dependent on smaller mobile devices. 20 years ago, it was laptops and desktops, and I forgot when iPads or tablets came into being, but that was maybe 10 or 15 years ago. But more and more people are using smartphones as their primary access to the internet.  

And those small devices, I'm sorry to say, just aren't very good for group discussions. If you're doing a video chat, all you're ending up with is, and if it's with a group, all you're seeing is little poster stamp size images of people on your screen, and that's not really enabling you to see your participants very well.  

Same thing with message boards, especially if you're having a group discussion. It's great to see the flow of a conversation, the thread, but on a small screen that's more difficult. 

I hope that platform providers will take care of this issue to enable us to continue doing all forms of qualitative research online using smaller devices.  

Another thing, going back to the issue of online focus groups not being as engaging. I strongly feel that with practice and with good training, online focus groups can be at least as engaging as in-person ones.  

So, it will require more training, and that's one of the things that I specialize in, and I enjoy doing. I really enjoy sharing my expertise in that area and helping moderators get the most that they can and make the experience for the participants the best it could be.  

One more benefit I'm going to go over is increased speed of execution of projects. There's always been a demand for faster turnaround on projects that hasn't gone away, and it's not a recent phenomenon. It's always been there. And in the past, I'm talking about 20, 30, 40 years ago, we did take advantage of technologies that enabled us to speed things up, things that we take for granted today.  

For example, being able to now send digital recordings to transcribers from in-person focus groups. It used to be on cassettes, and they would be packaged the next day, FedEx would pick them up and the next day after that, the transcriber would get them.  

Word processing software has been a boon. Many of you probably watching this have grown up with word processors, but that wasn't always the case. E-mail is a great way to exchange items. It used to be in the olden days, we would need to FedEx reports to people, drafts of reports before e-mail was available.  

Today, the big news in terms of speed is AI. I am not an expert in AI, but I've done a little bit of reading on it, and I pay attention to what the experts are saying. And what I'm hearing and seeing is that AI transcriptions, for example, are improving.  

Five or six years ago, I was just so frustrated using those transcripts, but they are a lot better today than they used to be. And also, there are parts of the process of any qualitative research project that I truly do believe can take advantage of AI.  

Putting together some of the basic tools like screeners and discussion guides is something that I think AI could give us a leg up on. It's not going to do the job for us, that's the key thing here, but it'll give a first draft. I'm thinking of AI as having an intern at your disposal so that they take a first crack at something. It's not going to be perfect, you know that, but it helps jumpstart the process.  

The biggest barrier to use of AI that I'm sensing amongst qualitative researchers is the fear of being displaced. We talked about putting guides together and screeners, but what about the actual moderation?  

We've all encountered bots when we've made inquiries online, and we don't want our jobs to be, our profession to be relegated to a bot. I personally don't feel that that's something that we need to be in danger of. I think a really good moderator could hands down do anything better than AI will ever do, but we need to get over that.  

A quick recap of what's going on with this whole AI thing. It could streamline some of the research activities if used judiciously, and that's an important caveat. And for buyers, even if we're shaving off hours or even just a day or two from the execution of a project that's an extra day or two, that a decision maker or an organization can reach a decision and perhaps take action that puts them at a competitive advantage over others.  

What do we see coming up? 

Well, one of the things that I'm sensing here is that I remember when online qualitative came out, there were a lot of people shaking their head going, ‘no, no, no, this isn't going to work’ and it's here and it's here to stay and it works just fine.  

So, I have a feeling that AI is a similar type of situation, and sometimes I have to remind myself of that because at first, I was resistant to this whole idea of AI supplanting qualitative researchers in the qualitative research process. But I think if we don't jump on it, others are going to take the work away from us. But again, my feeling is that it's not going to take over everything.  

We need to reach a better comfort level with the use of AI. There are issues about how secure the information is. It's one thing to rely on AI, but once we have an AI platform absorbed, let's say it's for analysis, and we say, ‘here are the transcripts from this project, look them over and give me a top line of trends that you see over here.’ It's like they have used that information.  

We hear that AI learns by doing more stuff and what's going to happen with the information, the data that we feed it to generate analysis. I don't have the answer to that, but that's something that needs to be resolved.  

Also, AI learns based on what we feed it, so to speak, and there are biases in terms of what we feed AI. So, the bias issues that are inherent with AI need to be addressed as well.  

And then finally, this push for speed at one point, at some points we need to just take stock of how important is it that we rush and take advantage of this? What are the risks that we may be taking when we make things go faster than perhaps, we don't really need to?  

So, there are a couple more that I was hoping to speak about the ethnography as well as the emergence of UX, and these are all important developments, but I don't have time for that. If you have questions, if you're watching live and you have questions about that, you're free to ask during the Q&A. Otherwise, let's move to a quick summary. 

First, there's no evidence that, over my 30 years or so in qualitative, there were times when people were wondering, is qualitative dead?  

It never went away, never. And I'm sure it's going to stay and keep on evolving. And that's the point. As qual has evolved in the past, I expect that it's going to continue to do so.  

I do, however, feel that the evolution will be more reactive than proactive as it's probably been in the past. The reason why I say that is because the users of the information working in market research departments are charged with providing the best possible information to decision makers within their organizations to reach sound business decisions. They are a little concerned about trying new methods, new ways of doing things that might jeopardize the quality of the data they collect. They're not as anxious. They're willing to be the first to adopt new processes and tools in the qualitative research process, and we can't force it on them. So, all processes is going to be slow, but it will continue as it's been all along.  

As I mentioned earlier, the specialization will continue, especially amongst moderators, but across all parts of the marketing research process. And I feel that because of that increased specialization, that collaboration will need to increase.  

Remember how I said that moderators in the past tended to be Jacks of all trades, Jacks and Jills of all trades. They did it all. But as we specialize, we can't do it all, which is going to require us to be more, just work together more with everybody who's involved in the process.  

Yes. And because of the specialization, buyers may have had one or two moderators that they relied on to do everything, but as the moderators themselves and everybody involved in the process, it becomes more specialized, they are going to have a broader mix of professionals, be they internal to the company or independent on the outside, that they will be using, and that will require some extra attention on their part.  

Finally, one of the things that I think this is not on the near horizon, but it may happen maybe 10, 20 years from now, just as in certain professions like medicine and even some of the trades like plumbing and teaching, I'm wondering if there's going to be a point where we call for credentialing or licensing of moderators. Again, a way to make sure that everybody who professes to be a professional in this field, to basically give them that stamp of approval that they truly are qualified to do this.  

So that's it. And what I'd like to do now is open it up for some Q&A.  

Before this video ends, I just wanted to give you my contact information. And just as a little plug, I did have this book that came out this past summer. It's all the wisdom that I've gained doing hundreds of online focus groups myself and training people in it. This contains the 125 tips that when I trained people time and time again, I found myself recommending and saying the same thing.  

So, thank you very, and now we will move to Q&A.