For at least a decade we have been doing some variations of online qualitative research, knowing this was the future of our profession. Well, the Covid-19 crisis made that future arrive suddenly and now we are pressured to catch up. This pressure meets with resistance from those of us who hesitate to see online research as an option for our projects. In reality, in most cases it is.
But the concerns are legitimate: How can we really build rapport through a device? How can we read body language or other cues in the “room”? How can we create interactive dynamics and engaging activities online? How can we involve those who are not tech-savvy or don’t have reliable internet?
Digital divide aside (this is a bigger issue), these concerns related to human interaction are not insurmountable. The truth is that most people have already developed ways to connect online. Think of all the new friendships and love stories; think of all the digital empathy involved in remote working, learning or teaching, and no less so in the “hand-holding” of our elders to get them into a video call or a remote doctor’s appointment—we are already doing this. We stubbornly try to maintain human connection.
But more than that, let’s not forget how powerful emojis, memes, videos, and GIFs are to tell stories and express ourselves creatively. The nuance of emotions and reactions that participants can express with this multimedia language compensates (if only imperfectly) for the body language, gestures, and energy we would read in the physical room. Our human desire for emotional connection is so strong, that we’ll always find ways to get it across, regardless of the medium.
Lastly, technology is getting better and better at making our work easier so that we can focus on connecting with our participants. Developers of qualitative research platforms are working hard to facilitate the recruiting and screening of respondents. Their interfaces are becoming more beautiful and intuitive. Their ongoing innovations allow us to design any type of activity we can think of and make it enjoyable for the participants. They are coming up with cutting-edge analysis tools to help us make sense of the avalanche of data we all dread.
As I myself am catching up with this sudden future, I’ve found it useful to approach it with these ideas in mind: freedom, reinvention, and connection. Let me explain what I mean by that.
Online research frees us from space restrictions making national or global studies easier and more cost-efficient. We are no longer constricted to a facility or interview room. Participants can be at home and we can be right there with them. This can make our interactions more intimate with the person we are trying to understand.
Online research liberates us from some time restrictions too. Instead of the classic 2-hour focus group, we can design online sessions that are both synchronous and asynchronous and spread out over several days. This allows us and participants to be more thoughtful, flexible, and creative (and still meet deadlines and budgets).
There is a price to pay for this freedom, but it’s not big: We may need to put in more upfront work for online projects than for in-person ones. It may take heavier pre-production to find the right research platform (or learn a new one) and to design and set up online activities that win participants’ attention. But it’s worth it.
The current crisis is an opportunity for reinvention. If you haven’t already, now is a great time to adapt to the digital world your arsenal of ice breakers and projective techniques, your tools for project management, brainstorming, workshop, and presentations. Now is the time to wrap your head around the available qualitative research platforms and choose the ones that work for you.
The current crisis has allowed me to rekindle my professional connections and create new ones. I’ve reconnected with old colleagues to share our fears, hopes, and practical ideas. I’ve also met new ones with whom I discovered the beauty of virtual coworking—a great option when you have problems focusing and getting work done by yourself. I’ve also been part of Not Everyday Life, a global crowdsourced initiative to make sense of how the Covid-19 pandemic is changing our life. Because of technology I’ve been able to connect with ethnographers,designers, planners, semioticians, and anthropologists from some 35 countries.
Keeping in mind these three ideas—freedom, reinvention, and connection—has helped me stay centered in these challenging times and feel better prepared for the digital future.
The sooner we embrace the new ways of doing qualitative research, the more we can shape the design of our new tools—developers do listen to our feedback—and together we can keep the digital future of our profession, human and personal. As it was always meant to be.
Maria-Gracia Inglessis, Ph.D.
Sr. Qualitative researcher and consultant with 15+ years of experience in multicultural marketing and communication. Driven by anthropological curiosity about human nature and its paradoxes. Always looking to elevate the thinking and to be a positive force in the world. Currently flirting with Service and Experience Design.