You only have to mention online qualitative research to a staunchly traditionalist qualitative researcher and you will receive a defensive critique on how it is inferior to face-to-face qual. In my view, defaulting to a comparative mindset is not helpful because it’s usually most effective when seen as complementary rather than a competitor. However, in the spirit of keeping the flames of debate alive, here’s how I think online qual research can be better than face-to-face qual research:
Online qualitative research:
Makes it easier to connect people
Since online technology transcends space and time (which is normally something only superheroes, gods and time-travellers can do) it means you can bring people from different locations together in one ‘place’. The costs of travel and hosting research are greatly reduced. People can join in from anywhere, at any time, making it much easier to assemble people. Great news for researchers tired of slogging themselves from one city to the next on fieldwork. This naturally makes online qual particularly suitable for global research and tasks pre and post face-to-face, as well as for co-creative methods when you require more than one round of conversations, with assessment in between.
Gets you more authentic responses
From a purist’s perspective you can get a cleaner read on people’s individual reactions to an idea when you show it to them in a one-on-one question online. Since it is truly private there is less chance of them being influenced by others reactions (whereas in face-to-face research participants often pick up on the body language and spontaneous reactions of others – even when you use a private response). The effect of ‘group influence’ is also weaker online because of the anonymity it affords. People are more likely to share personally held views and be less concerned with the group reactions. Since qual research prides itself on its ability to get personal, emotional and authentic reactions, it makes a strong case for online qual.
Gets you richer, more detailed feedback
Clients and traditionally minded researchers often mistakenly believe that you get less detail in online qual research. In fact, that is not the case: think of a study with eight people in it. You pay them each £50 to get two hours of their time. In a two hour face-to-face group discussion (in which only one person can speak at a time) you end up with around 15 mins of input from each person. However, online you can speak to people in parallel. When you pay for two hours, you end up getting two hours of each person’s time (i.e. 8x the contribution). Combine this with getting instant transcripts and multi-media feedback, in the form of mobile video and photos, and you have a truly rich and detailed form of research. The challenge then becomes how to process so much content efficiently. I will have more on that in later posts in this series. . .