It’s hard to believe that it’s only 4 months since The Nursery, like every other research company, had to switch our face to face interviewing to the virtual world, literally overnight. This created a huge shift in our working styles and practices. It feels like a lifetime ago.
As workplaces tentatively emerge from lockdown, there is plenty of discussion to be had about what parts of our enforced working practices we keep and when we revert to the old. Everybody is attempting to second-guess the future for a wide range of industries, with opinion swaying between things changing phenomenally to a (probably shrinking) desire for life to go back to the way it was.
The reality will, as ever, be somewhere in-between. Qualitative research is one where there is likely to be more debate than most as to whether we return (in full) to the way we were.
It is worthwhile at this point, stating the difference between online and virtual qualitative research. Indeed we call the latter ‘Virtual Room Discussions (VRDs)’, as we are still present with participants but not in the one room.
Online qualitative research has been established for nearly 20 years and has been focused on text based community and group response. VRDs are much newer and have only really become commonplace since the lockdown; they involve live webcam sessions and are only possible because the last 5 years, and in particular the last 2-3 years, has seen the proliferation of reliable and flexible webcam technologies.
Online research is established practice for exploring behaviour, especially over time. But face-to-face research has always been important for exploring ideas, and it is here that VRDs have had the most impact in the past few months.
We think about research as exploring the past, present and future. Of these it is exploring the future where being face-to-face and in the moment with people has always been most important. The moderator has to lean-in and manage response when we explore ideas, concepts and propositions. In order to help with future development, research sessions need to be kept upbeat, focused on potential rather than critique and ensuring that the consumer voice is a positive force, rather than a destructive one, in developing the vision of an idea.
At The Nursery we’ve always advocated the importance of face-to-face interviewing and groups for exploring ideas. This is because the way that people talk is as important as what they say, and the energy in the room tends to be a better indicator of potential than the words uttered.
And yet, we have to say that virtual rooms have been phenomenally useful and, for the most part, highly efficient. They have worked well partly because of the (shared) lockdown experience, but partly because we have shifted group styles to fit the medium.
We tend to have smaller sessions of up to 4 people so that we can see everybody on screen and gauge their facial expressions even in screen share mode. We use chat responses frequently and we spend more time with people, pre-contacting them about their technology and post-contacting them with follow up questions. We also keep the sessions shorter, to fit into people’s lunchtimes or before they put their children to bed. This has created a more intimate and shared experience with participants, a willingness for them to engage and less stress on their part (they’re not rushing home, thinking about the works drinks they’re missing or worried about their babysitter).
On a practical level, VRDs strip out some costs from time and expenses. There have been fewer no shows and any are easily replaced (tomorrow!). Postponements are no longer a massive headache as rearrangements are much easier. Recording, transparency and engagement have increased as clients can watch sessions from a variety of places and regions and feel more in tune with people than ever before. Certainly, one is tempted to query the future of the viewing studio.
The pros and cons of Virtual Room Discussions
So what will the future be now that we have been forced into a world of virtual rooms, which of course existed before last March, but whose usage was more limited and less widespread.
We should first summarise the myriad of advantages:
- Easy and accessible; individual, pairs, triads or quads can be conducted with little notice, nobody has any travel expenses and we can bring people together from different parts of the country if desired
- Small, short and snappy; an informal hour, or a little more, chatting about ideas and concepts – it feels less staged and less intimidating
- Relax and get comfortable; people can tune in wherever they are comfortable and eat and drink whatever they want (don’t have to worry about what we will or won’t provide)
- Hit the mute; Remember those training sessions on dealing with dominant respondents? It’s not subtle but we can literally mute people if their background noise is disruptive (or for any other reason !).
- Love the mobile; people can google, check out the celebrity or TV show we’re referencing, or even news, sites or anything else of interest. We need to learn to love this feature rather than the old school ‘turn your mobiles off’
- Get back together; one of our favourite features has been the ease of reconvening sessions, even in the same week. Or forming a WhatsApp group for follow ups. This was increasingly a feature of our research prior to lockdown, but lockdown has accelerated and expanded the contact we have with participants
But while there are literally loads of advantages of remote face to face qual, we also have to consider the drawbacks:
- Running the show; it’s harder to switch the tone of a session if people get negative or irritated by something. Participants can disengage more easily so turning up the charm and keeping everybody engaged is even more vital
- The joy of spontaneity; one of the features we love about face to face is the ability to go ‘off guide’ when necessary, or to integrate switches of tempo, utilise games, tasks and techniques to maintain momentum and to access different parts of people’s brains. This is all still possible remotely but it’s much harder to change tempo when people are still in the same place, in front of their screen and are physically restricted in terms of what they can see
- Creative workshopping; these are definitely more difficult to manage and run (although not impossible and the platforms will develop more and more tools for these). Workshops are always tightly planned but in a physical space, for participants they can feel refreshingly loose and open. In a virtual space the planning is more obvious and the restrictions palpable
- Technology woes; until we have faster broadband across the country this will be an irritant; we do screen for this but it’s impossible to predict perfectly - we now practice zero tolerance: better to ask someone to leave than endure endless buffering
- Our FOMO; that off the record chat or spark, in the moment laughter that unlocks a thought or conversation, the things people say that they may not have, we just don’t know if we’re missing out
- The authentic self; an area we’re actively investigating is the difference in how people behave when we’re interviewing them remotely vs being in the same room. Online qualitative research reviews have shown a tendency towards oversharing and ‘virtual bravado’. We’re still exploring some of these issues in the context of VRDs but there will inevitably be some differences
- Tiredness and sanity; Zoom fatigue feels very real and is a recognised phenomenon. It is interesting that after in-person group discussions, as moderators we tend to be infused with energy, stimulated by all the interactions and conversations we’ve just experienced. Yet after moderating virtual rooms the opposite tends to happen. It is exhausting. This is apparently due to a mix of prolonged eye contact with multi person screens which overstimulates our brain’s central vision
Some thoughts for the future
Whilst our industry has always talked about depth, at The Nursery we’ve always talked about the importance of breadth. Breadth is about tackling a problem from different angles, not force fitting a single method and claiming it is perfect but incorporating several, not believing in one perfect task or technique for every occasion so much as trying lots of them.
In the future we envisage online (classic text and communities) as remaining relevant for accessing daily routines and rituals that are often not even recalled or considered relevant by people. We see a mix of digital ethnography, virtual room and in person interviews as the perfect blend for exploring people’s lives in the here and now. And we see VRDs as a complement to in person face to face sessions for exploring the ideas of the future and evaluating the potential of strategies, concepts and propositions.
So the answer certainly isn’t entirely virtual, but it has definitely enriched our toolkit – something to offer and consider in the right circumstances with an international familiarity that now makes it the practical solution that it simply wasn’t 6 months ago. We’ve already been conducting in person research in the last month as we can’t do intercepts or capture people in the moment quite so well online, on another occasion the stimuli simply wasn’t suited to anything other than in person research in a shared space. But as an industry, it’s exciting to have new tools to offer and new ways to talk to people. 2020 has been a year like no other, and none of us would have wished for these horrendous circumstances. Yet pitched into the unknown, we’ve all been fast-tracked into a new way of interacting which will hopefully make life and work even better for qualitative researchers and our clients, everywhere.
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