Is All Online Research Created Equal?

Paul Hudson

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Sophie Grieve-Williams

    In these challenging times, we are all doing things differently; whether that is working from home for the first time or trying to replace traditional face-to-face research with different methods. Given the seismic changes being forced to take place in such a short space of time, it makes sense to take a breath, pause and reflect on what you are changing.

    Less haste, more speed, as the saying goes.

    This is especially important advice when adapting tried and tested research methods to fit new neds. So, I wanted to share some vital considerations when doing just that. And the first thing to remember is this: all research is not created equal. Replacing a face to face focus group with a real-time online alternative is not the same, no matter what people might say.

    Real-Time, But Not Real Discussion

    I love online qual, by the way. It’s my business. But if you watch a digital, text-based focus group, the first thing you notice is the speed at which the text moves. It’s fast. This is great to give you really quick, top of mind reactions to things. But if you really want every participant to hear other people’s viewpoints and respond to them, then this format is not going to give you the equivalent output.

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    Text based focus groups are great for top of mind and instant reactions, but asynchronous alternatives provoke much more thoughtful, considered responses.

    For this, it’s better to try an asynchronous discussion group over a three-to-five day period. These work in a similar way, using discussion guides and prompting, but people take part in their own time and log-in at different points. Because of this, asynchronous groups are more reflective and typically lead to a much longer transcript than either text-based focus groups, or even face-to-face methods.

    Dialogue, Reaction and Creativity

    If you are using a face-to-face group to develop concepts or prototypes, then you might be a little disheartened by the need to move online. But don’t be. And don’t be led to believe that an online focus group is your only option.  In fact, in my experience, for these types of tasks you don’t want to rely on text or video-based focus groups.

    Instead, asynchronous discussions can be much more effective. And communities are the perfect place to host them. Because to make ideation work well online, you need a greater variety of task-types & tools. You need to construct a series of tasks over a number of days: maybe an education pre-task to get participants into the topic, perhaps a group scrapbook to share ideas, and possibly a series of individual reflection tasks after the main group discussion. There are lots of options and approaches to stimulating creativity, so don’t feel limited to just like-for-like replacements.

    Emotion and Anonymity

    I often hear the misconception that online research lacks emotion. This simply isn’t true. We all express emotions everyday online with the tone of our words, our punctuation and visual vocabulary.

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    Does online qual lack emotion? No. We express emotion everyday online through our choice of words, our punctuation and our visual vocabulary.

    Even if that were not the case, video-based research methods can be used to gather a range of feedback. But the one point I would make above all others to weigh up whether emotion really is adding value to your research. Why? Because anonymity is one of the great benefits of the internet. Many participants can be more willing to take part in research that is both convenient and offers greater protections of their identity. They don’t have to feel like they are putting themselves out there in a group of opinionated people, and can participate on an equal footing. Switch off the webcams and you’ll get a lot more truth from participants.

    Numbers and Their Equivalents

    Face-to-face focus groups usually consist of around eight participants. But it doesn’t always pay to transfer your research online with the same structure. For text-based groups, six is the golden number for an engaged discussion. For video-based groups, consider reducing that number down to four.

    When you are recruiting, plan for a greater drop out too. One challenge of online qual is that the convenience leads to a lower sense of commitment. If you are aiming for a discussion that involves six to eight participants, I’d always recommend recruiting 33% - 50% over (in this case, recruiting twelve). And when running asynchronous research, plan for drop outs throughout the course of the research. If you want twenty in a group discussion over five days, start with twenty-five so that twenty will finish.

    Ultimately, there are (of course) advantages and disadvantages to all research methods, and online research is not a direct replacement of offline methodologies. In an ideal world, a combination of both would produce the best results. But, in these uncertain times, new methods and adaptations are forced onto us. The adjustment will be challenging for all. But if you’re new to online qual, remember the breadth of options at your disposal – there are many and each has a unique set of strengths.

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