Are Face-to-Face Research Methods Irrelevant?

27 Sep 2011 | ICG News & Announcements

Are Face-to-Face Research Methods Irrelevant?

Is there still a role for focus groups and other face-to-face qualitative research methods, now that we communicate so much online?

Qualitative research, especially the ubiquitous ‘focus group’, has become familiar over the last few decades, not only to professionals working in marketing, advertising, PR and related industries, but also to the general public. However, old misconceptions linger and newer ones develop – here are some examples: ‘how can talking to just eight random strangers tell you anything reliably?’; ‘focus groups are mostly used (badly) by politicians’; and ‘qualitative is only really relevant to and affordable by the big consumer brands’.

Then, the exponential growth of always-online broadband internet is changing our perceptions of what market research is and what it can do. We have become so used to getting a quick ‘heads up’ on almost any subject via Google, social networks and similar, and maybe asking a few questions online via Survey Monkey, that it can seem terribly time-consuming and indeed rather old-fashioned, to recruit and interview a tailored sample, then wait for the results.

The market research industry has, of course, embraced the online world, as witnessed by the many requests we all receive to take part in various online surveys. Increasingly sophisticated software now enables researchers to run online qualitative group discussions using chat-room-style interfaces in real time, and bulletin boards that people can contribute to over days or weeks. It can therefore be tempting to conclude that all research can now be done online, probably more quickly and cheaply than face-to-face, and that it will be at least as informative and insightful as the old methods.

Qualitative market research is more than just ‘focus groups’

Qualitative has its roots in motivational psychology, and is concerned with exploring the nature of the relationships people have with products, brands, services, organisations and environments. Sample sizes are small, although certainly not random, as they are usually structured to reflect key audiences e.g. users of a particular service, people in a demographic group, or brand loyalists. The interviewing style is conversational and non-directive, and aims to explore attitudes, motivations and behaviour in some depth; it looks at the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’ that quantitative research measures. Usage of qualitative is not confined to FMCG brands and politics, but has broad applications across the private and public sectors and amongst employees and business audiences as well as consumers. These days, qualitative research interviews are therefore as prevalent amongst charity supporters discussing how they chose their favoured charities or IT managers discussing employee laptop purchasing, as they are amongst people talking about detergents and cleaning.

Depending on the market, service, question areas and the like, a qualitative researcher will recommend the best interviewing structures and environments to talk to people in. The focus group has become extremely popular because it combines a creative atmosphere, where the participants share experiences and spark off of each other, with being reasonably cost-effective because several people are interviewed simultaneously. In the UK, we usually prefer to use the description ‘group discussion’, to reflect a more free-flowing and deeper-probing facilitation style than is often used in the USA, where the ‘focus group’ description originated. A ‘conventional’ group consists of 7-8 people, although smaller groups are sometimes convened, for example if there is a lot of individual detail to cover, as are much larger ones such as public consultations, which might consist of 100 or more people and several facilitators.

However, qualitative researchers also interview people one-to-one, sometimes because the nature of the target audience makes it hard to gather several of them together e.g. senior businessmen, or because the subject matter is highly personal and people might be unwilling to reveal much in front of others e.g. staff responses to a proposed organisational restructuring. Individual in depth interviews also include accompanying people and observing them in the environments where decision making takes place, which might be a shop, an office, when cooking at home, or when shopping over the internet.

In the overall context of our busy lives, online is just another environment and means of communication and economic activity. So, much as a qualitative researcher might accompany people when making a train journey, or while watching TV at home, we now find ourselves both interviewing remotely online, and sitting with someone at their computer (and/or with their mobile), and exploring with them how they use the internet for different things.

Online and face-to-face qualitative methods are complementary

Face-to-face and online qualitative methods are therefore not an either/or choice, with only one method of being the ‘right’ one. Both styles have advantages and disadvantages, both may be more or less appropriate for a particular project, and they can also work well side by side.

Traditional face-to-face methods allow the researcher to explore and understand people’s responses more fully than by any other method, simply by virtue of being in real time and in person. Experienced moderators are very attuned to listening to the pauses and what is not said, as well as what is articulated and the tone of voice used, plus interpreting body language and involvement. Typing into a chat room interface cannot provide this richness and even video conferencing style interviews give less clues than face-to-face. Additionally, broadband does have technical problems so online sessions do get interrupted by hitches, whilst not everyone is online that frequently, nor are they necessarily fast typists, nor feel entirely comfortable outside of email and some simple web surfing. Being interviewed online in the comfort of one’s own home can all too easily turn into an off-putting technical nightmare!

Online comes into its own when the potential participants in a group are geographically spread, perhaps because they are experts in a particular subject, and it would be prohibitively costly to bring them all together, even if feasible. Here, an online group, either in real time or as an ongoing bulletin board, can generate a sense of community between like-minded experts and produce a huge amount of depth and detail. Online can also work well for some personally sensitive subjects because of the level of anonymity, and for audiences and subjects where the internet is a key communications medium e.g. online dating. It also works very well as a complement to face-to-face interviews, for example keeping diaries online plus perhaps uploading photos before or after a group discussion or individual interview, and running a chat space for participants in a group to carry on the discussion in and perhaps cover additional ground afterwards.

How do the costs compare?

A common claim and fallacy is that online is much cheaper because participants and the researchers don’t have to travel to a mutual destination. The costs in recruiting and incentivising are similar to that of face-to-face interviewing, and reliable, intuitive software interfaces are not cheap. Additionally, much of the value of qualitative lies in the interpretation, where the researcher reviews and analyses in depth what has been said, then makes concrete marketing and business recommendations. This process is similar (and similarly time-consuming) whether the data has been gathered in text online or via a sound or video recording of a real life interview.

There is also a fear that any qualitative research will simply be prohibitively expensive for a small business or start up. Whilst it is certainly not as cheap as a few questions on an online survey (which you are unsure who has responded to anyway), it is usually possible to devise a small scale study that can provide genuine insights and direction for a fairly modest fee.

In summary, qualitative research can contribute significantly to deeper understanding of a specific market, service, audience or subject area. An experienced qualitative researcher will always be able to advise which mix of methods, including online, is most appropriate, and to design a study to meet a reasonable budget and timescale.

Lesley Thompson | Changes Research and Consultancy