Five Reasons why Skype will become an essential tool in Qualititative Research

13 Dec 2016 | Research & Business Knowledge

John Habershon reflects on his recent trial of using Skype to conduct face-to-face interviews, and muses on what the future could hold for this technology.

I watched an episode of the cop drama Braquo the other night (I'm a fan of what you might call Frenchie Noir).  There is a major falling out between the Russian and Turkish gangs operating in Paris.  The two sons of the Russian mobster, who run his drugs operation in Paris, are captured, tied to chairs and about to take part in a conversation between the Turkish boss and their dad in Russia.  They are executed in front of his eyes.  He's helpless to act; he can only fire his gun in anger and frustration.  The shot closes the scene in darkness as his laptop is destroyed, together with the image in front of him.  The viewer has to believe that the father, sitting in front of his laptop screen, would react as if he was in the room, forced to watch his sons die. 

The plausibility of this scene is based on what has now become very high quality video calling.  A few years ago blurry pixels, time delays, frozen screens and juddering audio would have made the scene simply not believable. 

It is not only in TV drama that video calling is becoming commonplace.  If you watch TV news it is now usual to see experts giving their views from their homes via Skype.  In a recent article on LinkedIn, Daniel Barchi described the growth of medical consultations via video links in the US (Telemedicine is now Medicine).  We are seeing a marked increase in therapy and counselling via video calling.  And of course Skype is an established tool for business meetings.

In talking to a doctor or counsellor it is important – sometimes vital – to establish both accurate and subtle communication.  So why not use Skype to conduct qualitative interviews?  This is the question I asked myself before setting up a trial study in August of this year, using Skype to interview 12 mums and children.  The recruiter was asked to recruit 12 mums with children aged 8 to 11 to be interviewed for 20 minutes over Skype. 

First, is the technical quality of video calling now good enough for it to become suitable for qualitative interviews?  We found in our trial interviews that broadband quality is sufficiently high to provide a smooth-flowing interaction, without technical hitches or distractions.  In eleven out of twelve interviews the video quality was adequate to good, and in four cases we captured high quality HD footage. 

In qualitative research the face-to-face interview has a unique role, not fulfilled by telephone or online interviewing.  The interviewer, by timely probes and body language, is able to encourage the respondent to express their views and feelings.  When we interview face-to-face we are able to pick up on nonverbal signals, in body language and facial expressions.  The ability to do this – for example to be able to see when the respondent doesn’t fully understand something – is a major advantage.  (It's only necessary to think back at that uncertain feeling during conference calls to note the value of seeing a face when hearing the voice.)

So the advantage of seeing and being seen for qualitative interviews (and group discussions) are obvious, if taken for granted.  But does it work in the same way when those faces are on screens?  With the experience of this study the answer is a definite yes.  Furthermore this applies to small screens, not just large computer or laptop screens.  We didn't set any conditions for type of device the respondents would use at home.  Consequently we had a mix of five laptops, three iPads, one iPad mini and three iPhones.  This turned out to be one of those fortuitous accidents, since I had not expected the respondents to use mobile devices, but I left it to them to decide.  To my great surprise the quality of engagement via iPhone appeared just as good as larger screens.

The nonverbal signs of engagement and relaxation during the interviews were very encouraging.  Looking over the interview footage we can see respondents moving towards the screen, showing ready smiles, and in repose, relaxed facial muscles.  The respondents, even after a cautious start, enjoyed the interview, as they became engaged with the topics (the creative material was provided by Waitrose and Penguin Books).  The children, incidentally, particularly enjoyed the experience.  For them it was an opportunity to talk freely in their home, in the most comfortable of environments, with mum in the living room.  Therefore I have concluded that it is possible to establish a real rapport and conduct high quality face-to-face interview over screens.  This is the second reason why interviewing via screens has a big future.

The third reason lies in the convenience for respondents.  This is not a benefit in itself, but the fact that it will result in higher recruitment quality certainly is.  Here, at last, is a countervailing trend to the steady decline in the willingness of consumers to take part in market research.  Recruitment companies offer ever greater cash incentives to motivate people to visit a recruiter's home on a dark winter's night.  It is quite daunting for the average consumer to attend a viewing studio where they will be asked to interact with strangers, in the knowledge that they are being watched by nameless observers behind a two way mirror.  Personally I love the adrenalin rush and the sheer theatre of moderating groups in these settings.  But there is no denying it is a stressful experience for many respondents.

Contrast this with the experience of the mums and children in our trial study.  I arranged the interviews by email, enabling busy mums to suggest a time when they could spare twenty minutes.  On a few occasions the interview was interrupted by playful brothers and sisters and once by a curious spouse, but no problem.  In this relaxed atmosphere, we break and then resume.  On two occasions we wrapped up and continued the next day.  This is market research participation which is truly respondent-friendly.

The sample included people from all over Britain, not only those who happen to live in parts of the country where there are recruitment hot spots like Manchester and London.  Interviewing by video will help qualitative researchers to reach, not only geographically remote consumers, but also hard to engage individuals in the population.  As the debate about opinion polling failures has highlighted, some people are simply not inclined to take part in market research, even if it only involves answering a few voting questions.  This is much more of an issue in qualitative research, where we are asking people to come to a venue and engage in conversation.  The shy and the introverted are less likely than the extrovert and the assertive to find their views reflected in research results.  Interviewing by Skype, at home, gives the respondent total control, providing an easy way to get involved for those reluctant market research respondents.

Another major recruitment obstacle is the fact that there are many people who are simply too busy to spare the time.  I have to confess I routinely decline offers to take part in market research, even though I’m inclined to support the industry.  For many people spending an evening, or taking valuable time out of their day, is simply not an option.

Looking at the business-to-business market this problem is even more acute and the advantage of Skype even greater.  Here is the fourth reason for the inevitable rise of video calling: the significant improvement in the quality of B2B respondents.  When it comes to hospital consultants, finance directors or senior lawyers the most successful, the most influential and those who have the biggest budgets are the least likely to find time for market research.  There has to be a compelling reason for senior people to come together for a group discussion.  The chance of getting into their diaries for an interview is not much better.

If we are asking senior executives to simply pick up a Skype or FaceTime call on their smartphone, when they have a spare twenty minutes, then the odds in favour of participation improve significantly.  What's more, an enjoyable and stimulating Skype interview experience will make them likely to do it again.

Finally, the most obvious of the benefits of qualitative video interviews is cost.  The fifth reason why I see Skype becoming a major force in market research is sample size.  It may be that research buyers will use the opportunity to reduce costs – and quite dramatically.  However, savings on researchers' time, travel costs and venue hire might well translate into larger sample sizes. 

This is perhaps the most radical effect of video interviewing because it brings the possibility of quantitive numbers in qualitative research.  A major obstacle to the credibility of traditional (expensive) qualitative research is removed.  How often have you heard internal clients say 'but that is only the views of four focus groups'?  How often have we researchers tried to construct a sample, including age breaks, existing/ potential customers, males/ females and found it prohibitively expensive?  Being able to conduct one hundred interviews for, say, the price of four group discussions means that we can begin to make meaningful comparisons between sub groups.  This will allow us to say, with more confidence, that a product appeals more to women than men, or existing customers more than non customers.

Interviewing 50 people, rather than 24, reduces the risk of the picture being skewed by a few outliers.  Qualitative research findings based on bigger numbers will leave fewer unanswered questions about the potential market for a product or communication.  A more forensic approach in qualitative research is on its way to a screen near you.

To view some clips from the trial click here.

NOTE: for fellow ICG members we can offer special rates to advise on a project, edit your footage and include a nonverbal, System 1 analysis