The use of technology and social media in qualitative research over the past few years has undoubtedly been a welcome addition to the researcher’s toolbox. Indeed, we’re a huge proponent and regularly incorporate such methods into our projects. However, it’s crucial to not let the buzz over technology and social media overshadow the need for solid research design, or to diminish the value that can be gained through more traditional qualitative approaches. Indeed, in spite of all the hype over the use of technology, the 2014 GreenBook Research Industry Trends Report indicates that the most widely used qualitative methods continue to be in-person focus groups, in-person IDI’s and telephone IDIs; with no significant change in use noted among any type of qualitative method from the previous year. So we are not advocating the use of one approach over the other, but rather stating the case that there is a place for all of these tools, as long as they are being used for the right reasons.
1) Rather than pitting technology against traditional methods, or viewing these varied approaches as an either/or proposition, consider all approaches as viable and complementary
- An increasing amount of qualitative consists of a hybrid of methods vs. a singular approach
- We encourage experimenting with new methods in order to better understand the value they offer
- There’s always room for new tools, it’s a matter of knowing how and when to use them
2) Make certain that the research objectives and requirements are driving the methodology… not the other way around
- Remember, garbage in-garbage out
- Fairly weigh the pros and cons of each approach, and determine which will best suite the research, as opposed to force fitting a method for no other reason than its novelty or newness
3) Above all, don’t overlook the skill set required of the qualitative consultants conducting the research, regardless of the chosen method
- The need for a solid foundation and understanding of qualitative design
- The mindset that, “anyone can conduct focus groups,” is as false for technology-based methods as it is for traditional approaches
- The importance of asking the right questions and knowing how to listen
- The ability to extract valuable insights is where the true value lies
- Working with researchers who understand people more than technology
Following are a few examples which illustrate how technology and traditional methods can co-exist, and when one approach may offer advantages over the other:
Mobile Ethnography: Mobile technology allows participants to self-report “in the moment,” communicating via any combination of text, audio and video from whatever environment the research calls for. While this method may offer the benefit of capturing a person’s feelings and experiences in-situ, there may be other behaviors or actions that the respondent is not capturing or reporting, or possibly not even aware of, that a trained ethnographer would notice. Thus, immediacy and speed may be gained at the loss of small, but very telling details; as what people don’t tell and don’t do can be some of the most valuable information gained in an ethnographic project.
We might suggest that a combination of shopping trips with and without a researcher present may provide balance, as learning gained on the assisted trips may help explain behaviors noted on the self-reported ones. Or, self-reported trips followed by either in-person or webcam interviews allowing for further probing and exploration might also be considered.
Focus Groups/IDI’s: Both face-to-face and online interviews (real time or bulletin board) have their pros and cons. Deciding which route to follow may be dependent on a number of factors–such as the ease/difficulty of recruiting qualified respondents, budget and time constraints, geography—but the key determinant should be the objectives of the research.
A relatively simple, straightforward concept screen or evaluation can easily be handled by any number of online platforms offering markup tools, which allow participants to view, critique and comment on concepts without being influenced by others, and then allow for discussion. However, a project more exploratory in nature, where the sharing and building of ideas is important, or having people with different views challenge each other and engage in more natural flowing conversation is critical, would better lend itself to face-to-face groups.
While both of these scenarios could be handled through either method, for the latter example the benefit of being able to read non-verbal cues such as facial expressions or body language, and hear voice intonation would favor a more traditional group approach.
Social Media: Social media is too big to be ignored as a source of real-time information for companies and researchers, but caution needs to be taken in terms of how it is used as a qualitative tool and its influence on decision making. One of the primary concerns is not knowing enough about the people providing commentary, or having the opinions of few speak for many. Some research conducted on social media shows that the majority of people use it for consumption without being active contributors in sharing content or interacting with others, and while there may still be valid learning gained from those who do participate, researchers need to be aware of the bias that exists. And while there are numerous text aggregation and analytic tools that troll popular social sites, is there one that can truly interpret language nuances and understand the context in which comments are made–incomplete and grammatically incorrect sentences, sarcasm, humor, anger, irony?
As this early stage, social media content may be most valuable in providing fodder for further qualitative exploration… through either tech or traditional methods: developing hypotheses, identifying language used around brands or categories, bringing potential problems with products or services to light, and raising other questions that may prompt meaningful discussion on key issues. However, at this early stage, we advise caution in viewing social media research as a stand-alone qualitative tool.
MSW●ARS recognizes the value technology offers, and is continually experimenting with new methods and tools, without losing sight of the value brought by tried and true qualitative approaches. Please give us a call to discuss your qualitative needs, and allow us to recommend an approach that utilizes the best of both worlds.