Guest Post: 6 Pathways to Great Qualitative Research

Susan Bell

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This is a guest post from Susan Bell - a qualitative research specialist and director of Susan Bell Research. Sue loves to conduct all forms of qualitative research, including new ways such as qualitative social media research.

She writes about and teaches best practice in qualitative research and qualitative analysis. Originally trained in quantitative research, she is always happy to design and conduct all forms of research for a broad range of industries including financial services, food & drink, government and the arts - helping her clients use research to develop better products and processes, and to communicate in the language of their customers.

These days, although we still use the traditional qual methods that underpin good practice, we also incorporate the best of the new and emerging methodologies and ways of thinking. We interview and observe people in more places, doing more things, and talk to them on more topics and in different ways than we used to. We also think differently about what they tell us, because of the great progress that has been made in cognitive psychology and neuroscience.

However, the point of this blog is to say that while we have made great steps forward in understanding individual behaviour and thinking, we are worried that the industry is taking a step backwards in its understanding of the positive side of social interaction and how relevant that is for our clients. So here are our 6 steps forward that we have discovered to great qualitative research.

1. Qualitative Research Thrives on Freedom & Flexibility

In our 20 years in business, we have learnt that the key to great qualitative research is its inherent flexibility. A good qualitative researcher has to have the freedom and the ability to be flexible in their thinking, to tailor their approach to understanding the particular consumers and the particular problem, and to design a qualitative programme that will produce the best insights. A really good qual researcher will never use a one size fits all approach, or sell a particular research technique for all occasions.

In the very best face-to-face focus groups for example, the researcher and his or her group of participants can take an idea or a topic and develop it and follow it through into all sorts of unexpected directions. That is why we call a ‘topic guide’ a ‘topic guide’, rather than discussion guide, and why face-to-face groups need lots of stimulus material, and a highly engaged moderator with the freedom to explore issues that arise. Tightly proscribed discussion guides constrain this conversation. If you want to do or commission face-to-face qualitative, please allow the moderator some freedom to think and explore. It would be sad if we lost the creativity of the face-to-face group at its best.

There is a lovely scene in the first Harry Potter book where Harry's cousin Dudley has just learned a new word: 'shan't'- changed to ‘won’t' in the North American edition apparently. Dudley’s intransigent ‘shan’t’ attitude and tantrums stand in great contrast to the imaginative and exploratory world of Harry Potter.

Every now and again, our industry goes through its own ‘shan’t – or rather ‘can’t - phase. You ‘can’t ask why’ is the latest one. Similarly, some researchers are adopting naïve neuroscience as their mantra, insisting the ‘everything we do’ is unconscious, so we shouldn’t use any form of interview-based research at all. This kind of absolutist, dictatorial 'you can't do that' approach to qualitative is anathema to the people who actually work in this field. The beauty of qualitative research is that it is exploratory and that there are no hard and fast rules about how that exploration should be conducted, as long as the methods recognise potential bias and use the researchers' skills of insight and ingenuity.

2. Technology has Enhanced this Flexibility

Qualitative research benefits from more flexibility not less, and technology-based qualitative research can sometimes help us do just that. Face-face focus groups can be constraining, in that they put participants ‘on the spot’. Asking people sitting in a group room far from home to ‘talk about their experiences with Telstra’ for example assumes that they will be able to bring all their relevant thoughts, perceptions and memories of Telstra to mind, which of course is unrealistic. In contrast, one of the great benefits of conducting qualitative research online is the freedom it gives to participants. We don’t expect participants to be online at the same time, or online at the same time as the moderator. We know we can’t get an instant response, so we don’t ask for one.

Using an online question board group we might give our participants a task on their first day: ‘please go into a Telstra shop, and come back online to share your experiences’ for example; on the next day the task might be to go the competitive websites, and then come back online to reflect on that experience. These consumers report their own real world experiences and then discuss with others what these experiences meant. As Lynne Freeman describes in our piece on digital ethnography, we can also use mobile technology to see real world ‘in the moment’ experience for ourselves. There is some irony in these developments in that that most artificial thing ‘technology’ helps researchers understand consumers in the real world!

3. The Psychology Behind Behavioural Economics: Great for Decision-Making Research

There have been great strides made by cognitive psychologists in understanding how our minds work and this thinking has been applied in very interesting ways by people working in Behavioural Economics (BE). Inspired by this thinking, we generally conduct decision-making research while consumers are actually using the products we are interested in if possible, or at least in the places they go to when they use them. In the past, qualitative researchers focused primarily on attitudes and conducted most of their research in groups. Neither of these helped researchers understand individual decision-making. For us a great combination lately has been to use contextually-relevant one-on-one interviews and then apply BE thinking when we interpret the findings. Supporting much of this, are the insights from neuroscience about how much of our thinking is below conscious awareness (but to be honest, cognitive psychologists knew this anyway!)

4. Life is Social

The problem is that all three of these advances have come at a cost. All of them focus, not exclusively but predominantly on individuals - people doing their own thing in their own time, in their own minds. The more we beat the drum of technology, behavioural economics and neuroscience, the more we seem to forget that life is social! People live with other people (usually) and share the food and other products they buy. They eat together, work together, play together. Research therefore needs to be social. The qualitative research process, whether it is spoken, written or observational is also a process of interacting with other people, as people in communities, online groups and face to face groups interact with each other and with the moderator/ facilitator. The more interaction the better, as long as it is the right kind of interaction.

We think that some BE advocates are doing some harm to qualitative research in that they have promoted the idea that all group decision-making is ‘groupthink’, and - Dudley-like - telling the industry that we 'shouldn't' use focus groups.This has then made people question the value of focus groups, and even brainstorming. The problem is that ‘groupthink’ is only one facet of group behaviour. It occurs, but only in certain circumstances. We think that the best writer on this is Susan Fiske: Social Beings: Core Motives in Social Psychology (John Wiley & Sons, 9 Nov 2009) who very clearly shows that groups vary in how well they perform. The more cohesive the group, the less the groupthink you find because group members understand each other and the goals and rules of the group.

5. Qualitative Researchers Need to Understand the Social Sciences

Working knowledge of interaction-based disciplines such as social and cognitive psychology, consumer behaviour, sociology and linguistics helps researchers understand the social nature of consumer life and the social nature of qualitative research. These disciplines teach us that qualitative researchers need a special set of interpersonal skills - they need to be empathetic, interested in other people, and a great listener, whether qualitative research is conducted online or offline, with individuals or groups, and is observational or conversational.

6. Qualitative Researchers Need to be Strategic Thinkers

The final key to success is strategic thinking. Strategic thinking is also a qualitative skill - as is possessing some serious commercial nous. This strategic thinking starts with the research design. It continues with having the ability to analyse and synthesise information. Don't just focus on clever ways to collect data!

A Final Word: Be Open to New and Old Ideas

Don’t be a Dudley. Don’t say shan’t or won’t or can’t. Don’t sacrifice the exploratory, imaginative, flexible creativity that is at the heart of qualitative research to new thinking and new technology. Be open to new ideas but remain true to what this field is all about. Understand the individual, and understand that what defines people is social interaction.

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