“When I studied psychology at the turn of the century, they said 7 was the average number of things that our short term memory can handle (at least I think it was 7?).
Today we outsource much of what we need to remember to devices, so I’m not sure this still holds true! In any case, as qualitative researchers what we can remember from the conversations we have is critical to the quality of output. Considering memory is fallible, shouldn’t we use technology to enhance our ability to recall the detail?
Virtual whiteboards like Miro and Mural give qualitative researcher bionic memory! You can zoom in and out and organise lots of information on them. Virtual whiteboards help us to gather more detail, collaborate more efficiently with others on analysis, and paint more rounded pictures of participants as people (not just soundbites). Moreover, using them can accelerate analysis and report writing (because the story is quicker to develop and substantiate).
In fairness to us qualitative researchers, we have honed our cognition to cope with the challenge of remembering what we need. We have learned to ignore the dross and retain what is strategically relevant, intellectually curious and emotionally salient. So we can write a good report based on recall alone. But having used virtual whiteboards like Mural for analysis, I believe we can do an even better job with them – especially on online qual projects.
The challenges facing qualitative analysis today
1) Not enough time for transcripts
Research briefs are increasingly agile, with shorter timelines. It is harder for qual researchers to have time to wait for professional transcripts. Many researchers end up relying on recall and missing details.
2) Clients need more detail and nuance
Despite having less time, clients need more detail – especially for innovation and experience design projects! This challenge is magnified in asynchronous online qual (which tends to generate more input from participants) and global qualitative studies with larger sample sizes.
3) Participants are reduced to soundbites rather than real people
It is hard to connect everything a participant said early on in a discussion (e.g. when exploring the context around a subject) with their feedback to concepts later in a discussion. This is particularly the case in online qual projects because I think it’s harder to remember what people say when they tell us remotely (as we’re not so emotionally connected as when we speak in-person). This means participants’ utterances can be reduced to isolated soundbites.
3) Analysis is too linear and isolated
Too often I believe that researchers do analysis in isolation and then come back with a perspective that has not benefited enough from other stakeholders (such as the creative, design or innovation agency or client). This means that findings are restricted by the limitations of the researchers’ brains and knowledge base, rather than being stretched by other stakeholders expertise (which often results in more useful insights).
How virtual whiteboards can help
Here are 10 benefits from using virtual whiteboards for analysis. . .
- Never forget what was said: Cut and paste insightful quotes from discussions, transcripts or asynchronous online qual platforms into a bespoke framework means nothing important is forgotten. Organise it under themes (that follow the discussion guide or analysis framework).
- Understand participants as people: Create a row for each participant, so you can easily cross reference their answers to earlier contextual questions with their reactions to subsequent questions and stimulus. This makes it easier to interpret why they said what they said.
- Don’t lose your ideas: Too often we have useful ideas that fall by the wayside and get lost as we moderate or get distracted. Whenever you make an observation or think of a potential recommendation you can keep hold of it on the virtual whiteboard, with a unique virtual post-it (rather than allowing it to fall away into your subconscious or note pad!).
- See useful patterns emerge more easily: Once you have all feedback summarised visually with themes and meta-themes neatly laid out, patterns in the data will emerge more easily than if the information were trapped in your (and others’) heads
- Get more inspiration from the agency or client stakeholders: When more of the detail in analysis is laid out on a whiteboard it’s easier to invite clients and agency partners into the analysis process. This means you can learn from their perspective and have more data-led discussions during analysis (as you can quickly share examples of what was said).
- React faster to client requests: If your analysis is neatly organised in a virtual whiteboard you can respond more effectively to follow up questions from clients. Colour coded virtual post-its, ‘tagging’ and ‘search’ functions make it even easier to do follow-up analysis if requested (compared to going back into the data).
- Let clients pay for your thinking more than the format of your output: Explore the idea of sharing a whiteboard instead of a traditional report. You can still put in clear recommendations and summary points onto it. But it has the added benefit of containing more detail. This means clients are paying for your analysis and interpretation rather than the time it takes to make PowerPoint look pretty!
- Share thoughts with fewer meetings and emails: You can @mention people on whiteboards and ask them to elaborate and supplement it where needed. This means less meetings and emails and more efficient collaboration.
- Let the work live beyond the project more easily: Since the detail of participants’ feedback is contained, tagged and neatly organised, you or your client can mine it for new insights in the future more easily.
- Tune feedback into agile workflows: This type of reporting lends itself to agile workflows as agencies can see analysis as it is uploaded in real-time – rather than having to wait for the final report. If managed carefully, this means they can have a head-start on prototyping and iterating designs.
Although these guidelines can be applied to the analysis of any type of qualitative research, I think it’s most useful for asynchronous online qual (that is largely text based and running over a few days) – as it generates a lot more detail than the equivalent number of people in real time focus groups. It gives you instant transcripts after each day of the study. I’m impressed by how much easier it is to do collaborative analysis, find the story, write reports, substantiate what you want when you have analysis neatly organised in virtual whiteboards.”