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Online or offline qual? Live or overtime?

How do you work out which qualitative research method to use?

There are so many qualitative research techniques and methods available at the moment, it can be a challenge to work out what to use when. Making sense of what is out there takes a lot of time.

It can also be a challenge navigating your way through the sales pitch which is often based on a very narrow perspective of what qual research is for.

Hand on heart, I haven’t used or even evaluated anywhere near all of the methods and platforms around, but I do have some rules of thumb when choosing what method or platform I use.

These are the four questions I ask (in order).

1. Does it suit the people I need the information from?

This is the start point. If the tool or method doesn’t suit the research participants for that project, I don’t use it.

For example, I recently wrote a proposal for research with the parents of newborns. As I was writing, I was very conscious of the fact that parents of newborns have the most unpredictable schedule of any person ever. I knew we would need a method that allows them the flexibility to choose when to take part and for how long. That rules out any kind of ‘live’ group discussion whether online or face to face. There can be pressure to conduct online live groups because they are quick to turn around. For some people like parents of newborns – any group method is best avoided.

2. What do I need to learn?

Next, I think about the topic and what I need to find out.

Maybe you need to learn what people do when out in the ‘real world’, when a researcher or ethnographer would get in the way? Then you need an in-the-moment video or screen-recording tool, as long as whatever it is they are doing doesn’t take very long.

If we need to capture behaviour over a short period of time like a week, diaries work well. But what if the purchase process for your product occurs over months?

Perhaps you have listened to sales people who tell you that ‘people can’t remember’ so you should not ask them about their past behaviour? My advice is to ignore the sales talk and use common sense. Of course people can remember. Personally, I am quite happy asking people to think back over what happened in the past as long as the topic is reasonably distinctive, was fairly recent, and I can build something into the design to help people remember – and ‘distinctive’ is crucial here.  Some brands, services and experiences are more distinctive than others, so are easier to recall. In contrast, people may struggle to remember a brand in a crowded category, or one similar experience of many. It is this kind of nuanced and contextual thinking that I find missing from much of the discourse on these methods.

3.  What role does the moderator or researcher play?

The third question to ask is what role does the researcher or moderator play?

Can participants work on their responses remotely or do they need a researcher there to engage them, to ask questions, probe, explain, cajole or keep them on track? I like online boards that give the moderator multiple different ways to interact with people.

The best qual tools and methods have the flexibility to allow the researchers to modify the questions or create new tasks midway through the project. Personally I tend to avoid platforms where the software provider has to do the uploading because changing things on the fly becomes really cumbersome for the researcher, especially if she and the provider are in a different time zone.

4. What about other people?

Life is social. We are all social animals. One of the biggest problems with survey research is that it assumes that people can answer as individuals. Qual research gives us the opportunity to redress that.

So the fourth question I ask is: is the topic we are researching something that people use or see when they are with other people? There’s an interesting thing that happens when couples of a similar age come to think about retirement. If one of them retires, the other may feel pressure to do the same – even though none of their previous work decisions have been synchronised.  Obviously as researchers we need a method that helps us understand this kind of interaction. 

To sum up, the best way to choose what qualitative research method or platform to use is to ignore the sales pitches and focus on these four factors in order: Does it suit your participant? Does it suit the topic? Does it allow the researcher or moderator to do what is best for the project, and does it take into account that people are social beings?

When conducted with forethought, qualitative research reveals rich insights. Enjoy!

Susan Bell Founder & Lead Consultant
Sue Bell, Founder & Lead Consultant

We would love to hear from you, and are always happy to talk through research methods and options with you, if you are not sure what you need. Why not get in touch for a free, obligation-free, and confidential conversation.

Find out more about Susan Bell Research.

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