In-Person Research is Back (or is it?)

Qualitative in the time of COVID

Since April, clients have asked my opinion on conducting in-person research. When will it start up again? When should we return to in-person work? It turns out these are complicated questions.  So how do you decide if it’s time?

Here are some things to consider:

The facilities: Nationwide, facilities are holding in-person sessions. I have been receiving emails steadily for the last several weeks from facilities professing their ability to support in-person research safely. For example, Schlesinger Group is open in all US markets. They are implementing temperature checks for respondents, smaller groups, and social distancing at check-in and in the waiting room. Their website shows the image of a focus group where there is a plexiglass divider on the table between the moderator and respondents (all of whom are maskless).  

The moderators: I have not conducted in-person research since March, and among my peers, this is the common refrain. But I have spoken with one moderator who has conducted research in LA and San Diego, and she felt it went well: respondents were willing, the facility was prepared, and there were no no-shows. In this case, the moderator and all respondents wore masks, and there were also clear plastic dividers on the table creating individual safe spaces.

The respondents: Generally speaking, respondents are available and interested in participating in qualitative research. In fact, since so many people are spending more time at home, they may be even more interested. I’ve had no difficulty recruiting recent studies and recruiters don’t balk at considering new targets for future work. Although I don’t have direct recent experience with in-person research, panel surveys by Schlesinger and Jackson Research confirm consumer willingness to participate in well-managed in-person studies.

So, where do I stand? Like many of you, I really miss in-person research. I love both the experience and the learning available through face-to-face interactions. But for the time being, I’ll be conducting qualitative research virtually - because of the uncertainty of the future of COVID-19, because of travel challenges, and because of the restrictions that are required for the in-person experience. Without masks in the room, the moderator would not be able to move freely to use an easel or to manage the energy. With masks, access to some of the main benefits of in-person research (personal connection, facial expressions, etc.) would be severely limited.

Fortunately, there are many terrific, proven, online platforms available to accommodate most of the research questions you would want to address qualitatively. I’ve recently used qualitative platforms to do a deep dive into patient experience with a new medication and to test packaging concepts for a product under development, and I’m planning for usability research to be conducted virtually. It’s all possible thanks to these effective online tools.  

So yes, it’s complicated. Think it through. And, remember, I am available to listen and to talk through any questions you have about online methods and platforms.

Stay well, stay safe, stay cool,