The Impact of COVID-19 on the Qualitative Landscape

For many, March 11, 2020, signifies the day the US closed down for COVID-19. Where was I on March 11, 2020? At a focus group facility somewhere in the US, with probably more clients than the backroom was designed to fit. The next day, as I traveled back to LA through the eerily empty airport it never occurred to me that this might be the last focus group I would attend for a very long time.

March 11, 2020, marked major changes in a lot of our lives, but it also marked a major shift in the landscape of qualitative research. Qualitative research had begun to move toward online methodologies for a number of very good reasons, but the trajectory had been gradual. Now, the pandemic accelerated that gradual slope to a precipitous cliff.

Fortunately, those initial use cases of online qualitative methodologies, be it focus groups, in-depth interviews, or ethnographic methodologies, had revealed many of the benefits and had jumpstarted many of the technology solves. Combine that with the growing availability of and increasing consumer comfort with technology, and the industry was able to make a nearly seamless transition to online qualitative.

The benefits of online qualitative we already knew about

  • Cost efficiencies involved with eliminating travel or facility rental. While there are costs associated with online platforms, or, in the case of ethnographies, installing in-home monitoring technology, these costs are often offset by the benefits of ease of accessibility.
  • Geographic dispersion and representation within the research audience. Travel limitations make it much more difficult to fully represent the research audience. However online research allows us to fully represent a broad spectrum of the target audience.
  • Online technology reduces barriers for respondent participation. Participants can attend from the comfort of their own home. It also allows for easy show-and-tell, if necessary, and increases show rates substantially.
  • Online creates flexibility for clients, giving them the latitude to view in real-time or view recorded interviews when it works with their schedule.

Technology availability, platforms, and data capture have improved

Research companies had already been working to develop online qualitative capabilities as demand increased to make research easier for participant and researcher alike. As the pandemic hit, the challenge for providers was being able to scale-up their systems to meet the demand. So early pandemic qualitative often used more rudimentary approaches that resembled focus groups before we had backrooms. Moderators were forced to say, “Those black boxes you see at the bottom of your screen are my colleagues. They are taking notes for me.” But as technology has scaled up, those types of glitches have gone away. For respondents, the only experiential difference from a typical qualitative experience is the same they might experience on any other Zoom call. The only key difference is we recommend smaller groups to maximize flow of conversation.

For the researcher, what used to seem impossible is now possible. Ethnographies in particular have evolved dramatically. First, we sent a team into a home for an extended period of time. Then, we asked respondents to send in photos and video diary submissions and journal logs. Now, we can install a camera in the home to monitor behavior in the home in real-time.

But even the simplest technology such as screen share makes showing stimulus and gaining feedback possible on an online environment.

Consumer comfort with technology has skyrocketed

During the pandemic, more consumers started “Zooming” in their everyday lives. They became more and more comfortable with cameras in their homes. While younger generations had long ago lost or never had as many inhibitions about such technology, older generations were slower to break that barrier. But now everyone was “Zooming” with family members and doctors, the final hurdle to Zooming with moderators and groups of strangers was an easy leap. Suddenly everyone was saying, “You’re on mute,” and even your grandparents knew what you meant. This allowed researchers to say that we could recruit a fully representative population for online qualitative.

The future of qualitative research

Now that we are returning to a hybrid world, qualitative, too, is returning to a hybrid environment. Online qualitative has absolutely demonstrated its merit and its benefits in the time of COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for in-person qualitative in our present, and our future. It just means we need to consider the expanded range of qualitative tools available to us now. There are downsides to online qualitative, such as smaller focus groups due to ease of audience management and flow of conversation, the inability to execute some of the exercises you can do as an interactive group, and limitations in the type of stimulus you can share, particularly as you consider issues of confidentiality. But now these are simply some of the tradeoffs you need to consider when deciding between in-person vs. online qualitative research. The bigger picture is that we have more options now that pre-pandemic, and that’s a good thing.