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Online Qualitative & Digital Dialogues

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Why conduct qualitative research online?

Why not? A ‘digital’ society is upon us, it is fully interwoven into how we think, act and do. The digital and non-digital worlds are no longer viewed as separate ecosystems – they both form part of the integrated ‘whole’. In summary new research experiences should be:

Digitised – People are online constantly throughout the day – whether they are at their work laptop, using a tablet on the sofa, and/or using a mobile during their commute. Online routes are therefore highly accessible.

Socialised – The emergence of social media has radically altered behaviour – with people increasingly comfortable to ‘share’ and interact online. A raft of digital research tools have evolved to facilitate listening to these interactions.

Personalised – All good research should be participant-led, and conducted in a manner (and ideally via a channel) that participants are most comfortable with – increasingly, this is in a digital space.

The main methods

The following is a brief summary of the major online qualitative research approaches deployed:

User diaries/blogs – participants are set a task, such as recording their behaviour and/or thoughts over a set timeframe. They login to an online platform to make appropriate blog posts/diary entries. These contributions can either be public, so that other participants can view and comment further, or made private.

Live chats – this is similar to instant messaging. A chat-room is set up and participants login and answer the specified questions. This is a very dynamic and fast paced method of qualitative research.

Video focus-groups – using a group of participants with webcams, you can set-up a video conference style session – capturing video footage. This approach can, even now though be subject to technical challenges (given issues of webcam/IT compatibility).

Pop-up communities – these are online groups that take place over a period of a few days or week and are similar in style to a discussion forum. The moderator ‘posts’ a question and then participants leave their replies underneath (with any associated rich media/links/hashtags added as appropriate). Of course, the moderation team can reply to/probe these comments for further granularity of feedback.

Longitudinal communities – typically, these sessions are longer than a one-off group, and run for weeks or months. Longitudinal communities can take advantage of many other benefits, as well as build upon previous insight gained. Furthermore, longitudinal communities can employ a raft of research and participant engagement features.

A few reasons why online qual can fail

We all want to avoid bear pits. Based on our experience, over the years, here are a few things to avoid – to ensure your application of online qualitative is a success…

Move beyond the static discussion guide – Yes, the discussion guide needs to be clear, concise, and dynamic. But, it should also reach beyond a battery of open-ended questions. Wherever possible employ the fullest breadth of interactive activities that the digital qual platform offers. Ideally, mix in respondent video, collages, perceptual maps, social/mobile activities, as well as storytelling. This will will make things so much more engaging for your respondents, as well as your stakeholders.

Lack of communication – Respondent communication with respondents, from project start to end is key. Be clear with respondents at the outset why they are important to the study, as well as what is expected of them (in terms of both time & activity commitment). The moderator should keep the comms ‘high’, at the very minimum sending a note to everyone, each day, providing encouragement and outlining their activity for that day. In our experience, it has also proved beneficial, on day one, to send at least one personalised follow-up ‘probe’ to each individual participant acknowledging (and appreciating) their contribution.

Insufficient incentives – Nothing will discourage a respondent more than doing a lot more work than they anticipated when recruited. Online is no different to ‘traditional’ qual in this regard. Typically, a multi-day study should require a respondent to commit at least 30 minutes per day – they should be recompensed accordingly. Of course, if the study is interesting and well-designed, respondents will often spend a lot more time sharing because they want to, not because they have to.


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