Market Researchers Resources The 2018 Guide to Qualitative Research Methods

Why You Might (But Should Not) Be Hesitant About Online Qualitative Research

(Originally published in 20|20 Research)

In 2001, Kathy Doyle of Chicago-based Doyle Research did her first online qualitative research project. She had been looking at online research software for some time, but couldn’t find a platform she liked. “They all seemed like the latest shiny penny that looked cool, but would add no value to the research process,” she recalls. “It was clear the platforms were developed by IT people, not by researchers.” A longtime 20|20 Research focus group facility client, Kathy agreed to take a look at a demo of 20|20’s then brand-new online qualitative research tools. “When I saw the demo, it was pretty clear a researcher was behind it.” And these tools were coming at just the right time, thought Kathy, whose gut told her that the industry was heading in the online direction.

But fast-forward a decade or so, and Kathy’s research projects at Doyle Research are still very much in-person. “We do about 60 percent in-person and 40 percent online,” says the president of the 25-year-old research firm.

She’s surprised by what she calls the “slow adoption process” of online qualitative research, particularly among clients. “I think it has a lot to do with their comfort level. They just don’t see how you can do qualitative research online because they think it’s all about ‘seeing’ customers and watching their facial expressions.”

Kathy says she’s heard a lot of excuses from clients: How can we get good insights online? How will we know if the person we recruited is the person online?

Clients can be skeptical about online qualitative research, but so can researchers. “I’m surprised by the people who insist that it can’t add value to their qualitative toolbox,” Kathy says.

Not helping its reputation was the fact that the first iteration of online qualitative research was chat. “It certainly didn’t help the sale of future forms of online qualitative,” she says. “You couldn’t read facial expressions, and typing speed and abilities really did play a role in collecting insights.”

Since then, of course, the online qualitative toolkit has expanded exponentially to include the online focus group, bulletin board focus group, webcam focus group, immersive research and mobile qualitative research, among others. As for Doyle Research’s expertise, “I don’t think there’s an online method we haven’t used,” Kathy says. “We offer a full battery of online tools at this point.”

Most research proposals that Kathy and her team put together offer both online and in-person options. While she and her team advocate for the use of online options, she also recognizes that it doesn’t work for everyone. “We pitch whatever we think is best for their budget, timing and objectives,” she says. “If we think it makes sense, online is our first recommendation in the proposal.”

Kathy points to geographic diversity as online qualitative research’s biggest benefit. “With online, you can easily talk to people from different parts of the country without having to travel,” she says. It’s also the perfect solution for hard-to-reach demographics, whether that’s busy physicians, tech-crazed teens or even house-bound seniors. Kathy also says there’s a benefit to online’s anonymity. “In a lot of cases, it gives us better responses,” she says. “People say things they might not be comfortable revealing in front of an in-person focus group.”

Kathy says once clients do their first online project, they’re usually converts. She cites one recent project in which a client—a diabetic device manufacturer—was hesitant to do research at all, let alone online. “He said he had been working on product development in this industry for years and had talked to many diabetics,” she recalls. “Once the project (a three-day bulletin board focus group) got under way, he was blown away by the responses. He said he heard things he had never heard from his years of talking to diabetics.”

Kathy may have been off a little on the timing of her prediction about the future of online, but she maintains that the industry is still very much headed in that direction. “Our communication in general is moving online,” says the mom of a tech-savvy teenage son. “Ten years ago, the thought of talking to people online was weird. But 10 years from now, the idea of going to a focus group facility to talk to a group of strangers will seem even weirder.”

Kathy Doyle is the CEO of Doyle Research.

“I have used Doyle Research on numerous occasions, and have found the team to be knowledgeable, creative in recommending solutions for qualitative that works, able to turn on a dime when we needed it. We’ve had solid results and some highly insightful analysis that opened business partner eyes to some things they didn’t know but needed to.”

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