Qual in the time of Coronavirus

1 October 2021

It's never been more vital to make sure that you understand your customers. The Coronavirus pandemic, and the steps that we have taken to combat it, have had profound effects on our customers' lives, jobs, and ways of doing business.

Some of these effects may result in fundamental and lasting shifts in customer priorities, attitudes, and behaviour; but even if everything ultimately returns to "normal", you need to understand what your customers' lives are like right now if you hope to create a good customer experience.

As researchers, when we want to find out how customers are thinking and feeling we naturally turn to qualitative research. Without getting too caught up in definitions, qualitative research is a family of techniques which combine observation and questioning to understand a subject in great detail.

What distinguishes it from quantitative (survey) research?
  • Smaller samples (since we're not trying to measure how the whole population feels)

  • Much more time with each customer (because we want depth, not breadth)

  • Open-ended questions (think journalistic interview, not survey questionnaire)

  • It's face to face, giving you the chance to empathise and include non-verbal information

That last point raises a bit of an issue right now, doesn't it? So we seem to be in a bit of a bind—we need qual research more than ever, but we can't do it in the traditional way. So what do we do?

Moving qual online

Can we take traditional tools, like focus groups and depth interview, and move them online? Sort of. It wouldn't be honest to tell you that online alternatives are always as good as getting out there and experiencing customers' lives with them, they're simply not. There are specialist software solutions to run focus groups online, or you can just use Zoom or Google hangouts and other similar tools.

By all means try this approach, but in my experience shifting groups online exacerbates the weaknesses of focus groups, and minimizes their strengths.

You tend to get nothing but very surface-level reactions, with little depth or context. Thinking in these terms, copying and pasting your focus group approach from one modality to another, also fails to take advantage of the benefits that digital approaches can offer. There are, as we'll discuss in a moment, better alternatives if you want group interaction in your online research.

Depth interviews, by contrast, work quite well over a video call. When the software works well, and I find that even slight technical snags have a surprisingly big impact on how natural the conversation feels, you do get a lot of the benefits of being face to face with someone. You can hear their tone of voice, and see their body language. You can even get them to show you around their home, or hold things up in front of the camera.

A video call is not the same as being physically in a room with someone; but it's not a bad second best, and it's a lot better than a simple phone call.

Remote ways to get insight

In many ways, these approaches show a failure of imagination. If digital tools and connectedness are changing the way we live and work in so many ways, why should they not change the way we do research?

Perhaps the Coronavirus pandemic will force us to evaluate the tools we've been using, and we may find that we've been lazy in sticking to the traditional model of focus groups and depth interviews. What have we been missing? As the sociologist Nortje Marres observes,

The relations between social life and its analysis are changing in the context of digitization, and digital sociology offers a way of engaging with this.

So how can we use the strengths of digital tools to our advantage?

  • Asynchronous interaction. The first big advantage of digital tools is that they can be interactive without needing to be live - you can have a kind of asynchronous conversation.

  • Access. There's now a high quality audio recorder, video recorder, and camera in everyone's pocket. Add in the fact that it's connectivity makes it easy for them to send that content to you, and a researcher of 20 years ago would be dumbfounded by the potential access we have to customers' lives.

  • Availability. Finally, the nature of online interactions means that a lot of conversations or information which are normally private (or at least inaccessible to a researcher) become public. You can join an internet forum and watch customers interacting with each other entirely naturally (or at least, as naturally as they ever do). The ethics of that are something you should think about carefully, but it does open up opportunities to understand how customers think, feel, and behave.

Let's look at some tools which take advantage of the strengths we've identified.

First of all, where applicable, it certainly makes sense to use the data that is available online to understand customers. Find them on social media, use blog posts or online reviews as a window into their heads, if your customers form a special interest group, find the online forums or message boards where they hang out. This is the digital equivalent of an ethnographer living with the people that they are studying.

Where you can't get into your customers' homes and offices, ask them to do the work for you. Get them to keep video diaries, or send you pictures of things which are relevant, or simply to give you a guided tour of where your product is used. Be aware, of course, that what you're getting is a curated version of the truth, but it is still a version of the truth, and it can reveal things which simply asking questions never would.

Rather than trying to replicate the 90 minute focus group experience online, use online communities that evolve over several days. This allows you the time to react to what customers tell you, to create new activities, and to have thoughtful interactions with each participant. Again, you can get customers to upload video and pictures to bring it all to life, and make up (to some extent) for the fact that you can't see things with your own eyes. At TLF we've found online communities to be one of the most flexible and useful of qualitative tools, even before the onset of the pandemic.

The future of digital qualitative research

In summary, try not to let too much focus on the way in which you do your qualitative research be a distraction. Your aim is to understand customers, their needs, their lives, how they make their decisions, and what shapes their thoughts and feelings.

To do that you need to combine observation and questioning, getting as close to their natural habitat as you can. Increasingly the digital world forms part of that natural habitat, and qualitative researchers have probably been a little slow to acknowledge that. Digital qualitative research should have a place in all of our toolkits.

That said, if the Coronavirus vanished tomorrow, I'd be as keen as ever to get out there into customers' homes and offices to make sure I understand them fully. In the meantime, video calls and online communities will have to do!