Nursery Blog

The virtual world of face to face qual research

All of our working days have changed massively in the last week and although we wouldn’t wish it, we’ve all have had to adapt quickly. For the qualitative team at The Nursery, our biggest issue was that we had several weeks of face to face qualitative fieldwork set up for March and beyond, in both the UK and internationally. Some of our client’s first instinct was to cancel or go online, but there was still a desire to keep projects moving and to continue in a way that would allow us to run constructive development research on a whole host of new creative ideas and concepts.


Online vs virtual

We know that our online platforms are great for exploration and behavioural research, even for more finished ideas, but text and image based online has never been sensitive enough when exploring the potential of new ideas, concepts, positionings and propositions. Text based online community and group response works well with the real and tangible but not so great when exploring ideas that are work in progress.

The reason for this is that the moderator needs to lean in when managing ideas, keep people focused on the concept not the execution, keep them upbeat, positive and constructive. Negative thoughts are important watch-outs, but they restrict vision and development. It is hard to lean in when the moderator has less control of the session.

On the flip side of course, moderators should lean out when asking people to discuss their behaviour, thoughts, routines, attitudes, values etc. This is the time to let people get on with it and just steer rather than full on navigate. Text based online is great for this, people write, upload audio, photos and films, share their ideas and help you form a picture of their world.

But for exploring ideas, we strongly believe that face to face research is vital. We want to observe instinctive response and sense the ‘vibe’ created. For our development sessions in the last and coming weeks, we needed virtual rather than online qualitative.

Learnings from a week of virtual groups

After a week of being glued to our screens and conducting over 20 of these sessions, here’s what we’ve learned about virtual groups.

  • Zoom is awesome! Alongside TikTok, it’s the most downloaded app of the last week and for a good reason. It’s easy to use, easy to navigate and just works.
  • There are also some great research focused apps allowing more applications such as hidden viewers, whiteboards, card sorts etc. We’ve been using Made in Studios and FocusVision as well as our usual Incling classic community text based platform.
  • People have really enjoyed doing virtual groups! They have no idea what it’s going to be like but join in, engage with each other, grab a glass of wine (a lot of alcohol is being consumed in the UK at the moment) and are pretty enthusiastic about taking part.
  • We love seeing their homes and their makeshift desks and working arrangements (from sitting in the hallway to hovering beside their beds). Their kids pop up to say hello, see what’s happening or kiss them goodnight. And a partner or flatmate is always around, handing a cuppa or helping them out with their webcam. There’s a lot of normality in this abnormal world.
  • We see their faces while they watch ideas, can watch everybody all at once without having to scan the room, can pick up on frowns and smiles and tics just as we could when together
  • They turn up on time, there’s little awkwardness, they are in their comfort zones, see each others’ names and talk to each other as much as when physically present. There’s also a strong sense of camaraderie in these strange times.
  • The tech works better! No fumbling with laptops and connections to TV screens and remembering to present overly large polyboards in the right order. It’s all set up beforehand and we just press play! (we may have been lucky on this point so are setting up a secure YouTube channel to show film at its best).
  • The chat function allows people to send us side conversations and we can keep this public or private. We still use private responses (one of our golden rules of creative development) and ask for final responses too. We also let people play with pen and paper and send us doodles or search their phone for a relevant image, it’s good to keep it light and human.
  • Our clients feel more involved in the sessions and unmute, turn their cameras on at the end and ask questions directly to participants. They can also view groups from all over the country, not just the viewing studio closest to their office.
  • Importantly, we can stay on top of the stimulus. When people think it looks amateurish, we reinforce that it’s not finished, we keep them focused on the idea and keep it upbeat and constructive.

The client perspective

We’ve felt the transition from physical face to face to virtual has been successful but here are some of our wonderful client’s viewpoints in the last week:

The alternative set up with Zoom has worked really well. It’s actually very convenient being able to view from home and to be able to ask any additional questions direct to the group. Surprisingly all the tech worked very well in the groups I attended - which even if we were in a room wouldn’t be guaranteed to happen. I don’t feel as if we have lost any insight doing it this way. Thanks for doing a fab job as always!

Suman Karki, Marketing Manager, Direct Line

I thought the virtual session was great -  I actually thought by having the smaller groups you got a more honest point of view from each respondent as it was harder for a strong personality to dominate. It was great to get the chance to ask questions directly and another benefit was being able to much better see people's facial expressions as they watched the ads. Other than not getting to see you in person I really can't fault the approach.

Wendy Moores, Head of Marketing, Direct Line

The set up with respondents was really well orchestrated (even though you only had a short time to adapt to this format), and the tech and sharing of the creative stimuli worked very well. The respondents were relaxed and seemed comfortable with the set up. They were responsive and focused throughout the groups, leading to very useful insights. This is a testament to the quality of moderation at the Nursery - whether online or in person – you always do a fantastic job at making respondents feel at ease and tune with the subject, guiding the conversation in a way that is most useful for the creative output. Overall, it felt exactly like if we were behind a one way window... (except for the free food and drinks 😉). We’d be very happy to do this again in future with your team - quality or output of the groups was without any doubt maintained.

Alice Flanagan, Business Leader, Saatchi & Saatchi

And finally

It’s worth repeating, that people have been active and enthusiastic research participants in the past week. They like getting paid of course, but it has felt more than that and even more than a diverting distraction for an hour or so. Our participants have told us that they feel reassured to see that life is continuing, that brands and companies are still working, still developing, still planning and thinking about the future. Our thoughts are of course, with those on the frontline but we also want to see a vision of the world that will be ready for us, when we emerge from our cocoons in a few months’ time. Every time an event is cancelled our anxiety levels rise a little more, every time we hear that life can continue safely, there is some small spark of reassurance.

So there are more important things happening in the world right now and lots of reasons why research might not be the right thing to do. We’re but a small speck in the ocean, but we are still working and still engaging with people, raising a glass in their hallways, living rooms and bedrooms each evening and all feeling some reassurance from the knowledge that the world is still turning.

Pauline McGowan

Research Lead


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