Where I Hope Qualitative Research is Heading

It's about time

Prior to the pandemic, the majority of my research projects - at least 75%, consistently - were conducted in-person. I am a proponent of in-person research and was very happy with my mix of work. To me, in-person research has many advantages over other methods: closer connection with the respondent, closer attention by observing clients, the ability to observe and respond to body language, the camaraderie of the group.

Now, of course, like everyone else, I am looking back on a year where all of my research projects occurred online. It was an interesting year to say the least, and I definitely benefitted from the move to online: less time (and energy) spent traveling while conversely more hours were available for sessions to be scheduled.

Earlier this month I traveled for the first time in 14 months, and the experience brought to light a particular difference between online and in-person sessions: it’s about time.

In my experience, online sessions - whether single interviews or small groups - are extremely efficient. They don’t need to be long to generate a vast amount of information and insight. (I have recently been conducting a lot of 30-minute interviews, and they are just packed with learning.) Shorter sessions are also easier to schedule when you are recruiting busy people, and easier for clients to observe without disrupting their entire workday. And, given the range of topics I’ve tackled this past year, the applications for online research are vast: successful projects have included message testing, package design, digital tool usability, concept testing, ideation, ethnography, and more.

So, is there room - or a need - for in-person research anymore? Yes. My recent trip reminded me of one very important aspect of in-person research: it offers the luxury of comfortable silence. In person, respondents pause more, and the intimate setting and personal connection allow me to let that silence sit before asking a followup question. In fact, toward the end of one of these sessions, a pause led to an entirely new - and relevant and valuable - thread of conversation, one that might not have occurred online.

So where do I hope qualitative research is going? I hope we land at a healthy mix of online and in-person work, thinking - at least in part - about where we need efficiency, and where we need the luxury of waiting.