Redefining Qualitative Fieldwork in the Online Era

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    Quantitative research has continued to make the most of online technologies for fieldwork for a while now, whereas fieldwork in qualitative research has been slower to adopt digital methodologies. Nevertheless, more and more qualitative fieldwork is moving online, driven by new technological innovations and recent world events driving a greater shift towards online communications.

    Despite the exciting opportunities that this move to online fieldwork presents to researchers, the shift also requires new considerations for planning online fieldwork that may be different to, or non-existent in, in-person qual projects. Online qual research isn’t without its unique challenges compared to in-person projects, but new technological innovations provide us with new advantages and opportunities to conduct effective qual fieldwork that can generate impactful insights. This post explores some of these opportunities and challenges of planning and moderating qual fieldwork online, offering some practical considerations to help you get the most out of moving your qual research online.

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    Online technology has revolutionised qualitative research, overcoming unique challenges and providing great opportunities for the insights industry.

    New Online Tools Mean New Ways of Doing Fieldwork

    The development of new digital technologies has allowed qual research to catch up with the online surveys that have become a norm of contemporary quant research. Online video focus groups are an obvious translation of facilitating traditional, in-person qual fieldwork within digital realms, but the online era brings new opportunities and innovations to the tools we can use for online qual fieldwork. Here at FlexMR, we use tools such as Video Focus Groups, Question Boards, Smartboards, and Live Chats, which all replicate different elements of in-person qual fieldwork tasks in digitally accessible and innovative ways.

    Take, for example, the Question Board, which offers a moderated discussion, not unlike a focus group, but one that uses asynchronous participation (participants don’t have to participate all at the same time). This means that it’s easier to moderate for larger groups, because participants aren’t competing to have their voice heard all at the same time, and offers greater flexibility for participants to contribute at a time that suits them during the fieldwork.

    It's not only the tools themselves that have changed in the move to online fieldwork, but the ways in which we conduct fieldwork effectively has also changed. Moderation can take on different roles with online research, depending on the digital tools that are used. For example, moderating an online video focus group means having to moderate around technical issues that wouldn’t be present in in-person fieldwork. Also, the medium of online video focus groups requires a moderating style that can overcome the virtual barriers that video screens can create between participants, in addition to the usual moderating skills of in-person focus groups. New and effective moderation skills are needed to ensure that online video focus groups continue to generate valuable expressive data.

    Advantages of Conducting Qual Fieldwork Online

    The advantages of moving qual fieldwork online, much like the advantages offered by online technologies more broadly, can be summarised around three points: space, time, and cost.

    Moving fieldwork into digital spaces changes both researcher and participant access to and relationship with space. Online fieldwork collapses the geographic space between researcher and their target sample, as well as between participants themselves, allowing participants to contribute unique insight collaborations in ways that they would be unlikely to in in-person research, given the barriers that travel and location can have for many researchers and participants.

    This presents researchers with exciting opportunities to more easily conduct research at an international level, from the ease of communicating digitally with recruiters and translators, to the advances in transcription and translation technologies. With this comes the need for researchers to be culturally agile, with consideration given for how research language will translate to the nuances of your target sample. Regardless of how good translation technologies are becoming, working with a skilled translator is still a must when conducting international research.

    With the importance accorded to producing agile insights within the industry, time is an important consideration when designing research projects. Online tools can help by improving the speed of conducting qual research without sacrificing quality. Not needing to travel to conduct in-person fieldwork saves time, as does the availability of recording and transcription software that can help researchers speed up analysis.

    Online tools also allow for new ways of conducting qual fieldwork which liberate research opportunities from the potential time-rigidity of in-person fieldwork. Tools that allow for asynchronous participation in group discussions, such as FlexMR’s Question Board tool, mean that not all participants have to contribute at the same time, allowing for greater flexibility around time for both participants and moderator. Online tools can allow for greater opportunities of flexibility in your fieldwork design that can in turn encourage participation in a project, without sacrificing the generation of quality data.

    Whilst there are still costs associated with setting up and using online technologies for fieldwork, costing considerations do change with the move to online fieldwork. Costs usually associated with in-person fieldwork, such as travel costs to meet participants, or paying for venues in which to host interviews or focus groups, no longer need to factor into your planning. Indeed, particularly if thinking about international research, the costs saved by moving to online fieldwork could be significant when compared to conducting such research in-person.

    Similarly, costs saved can be passed on to participants as well. Online fieldwork reduces participants’ costs to travel to a venue, as may be the case for in-person research. Online fieldwork can also make it easier for carers and those with children (or other dependents) to participate, reducing costs they might incur to arrange care or travel, thereby removing a barrier for researchers accessing potential key respondents on a project. Ultimately, conducting qual fieldwork online can make it easier for your participants to contribute by removing some of the barriers they may face when navigating space, time, and costs of participation.

    Challenges and Practical Considerations for Online Fieldwork

    Whilst participants are generally expected to be more tech-savvy nowadays, and more people are confident with using online video and communication tools as a result of the recent pandemic, consideration should be given to ensure that participants have access to adequate equipment in order to effectively participate in your research. If you want to conduct online qual fieldwork, it is worth taking the time to ensure that participants have the equipment and technology that they need in order to fully participate.

    You could ensure this as part of your recruitment process, by checking that participants have a working webcam, microphone and computer or tablet device. It is also worth considering whether online participation can act as a barrier to accessing some participants, for example if they don’t have the equipment they would need or lack confidence using newer technologies.

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    As technological developments continue to redefine online qual research, with new techniques comes new challenges researchers need to adapt to.

    Time should also be allocated at the start of an online video focus group or interview to give opportunity to deal with any unexpected issues with technology or equipment. Participants and moderator alike can encounter unexpected issues, so it’s worth ensuring that you are confident with the technology that you are using. This also means that you are in a better position to be able to help your participants if they encounter any issues, thereby minimising any disruptions to your fieldwork and data collection.

    Getting the Most Out of your Online Fieldwork

    Technological developments are helping to redefine fieldwork for qual research in exciting and interesting ways, presenting new opportunities for researchers to investigate and generating impactful insights. The different opportunities and challenges that online fieldwork presents compared to in-person fieldwork means that there are practical and methodological considerations that need to be reflected on in order to get the most out of your online fieldwork. Getting the most out of qual fieldwork when faced with a study that requires quant and qual will need careful balancing and consideration, but will end up providing well-rounded insights when done right.

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