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The Future of In-Person Qualitative Research

Despite its shortcomings, we’re all thankful for online qualitative as it has helped the industry get through the worst of the pandemic. I’ve been thinking about how we will conduct in-person qualitative later this year and into next year. While facilities are doing a good job of making it as safe as possible, one factor that hasn’t been talked about extensively is how participants will feel about it.

A lot of this comes down to their beliefs, risk tolerance, and willingness to sit with strangers in various environments. While I don’t have a clear timeline (a lot of that will depend on the continuing vaccine roll out), I do believe we will see a progression of sorts for how willingly consumers will engage with research teams in various environments.

  • Travel: For moderators and research teams, a lot will depend on their willingness to travel. I also suspect extra time may be needed to get from point A to B given airlines are likely to have fewer flights.
  • In-Store Research: This may be the first type of in-person research to return. People have been shopping throughout the pandemic and as the weather improves, may be willing to make quick trips with a moderator and complete their conversation outdoors. While not perfect, it will allow participants and ethnographers to snap photos, take quick videos, see practical examples of pain points, and go in-depth in socially safe, outdoor environments.
  • In-Depth Interviews: Two people in a large room with plenty of space. While moderators may need to shorten guides, as more people are vaccinated and feel safer sharing indoor space, the traditional IDI may work for many people. While much of this approach can be replicated via videoconferencing, for taste tests, concept tests, etc. this approach may get in-person, tactile experiences back.
  • Small Groups: As group discussions become a possibility, people may be willing to participate in small (2-3 individuals and a moderator) group discussions provided the facility has a large room. One thing lost in videoconferencing is the ability to read body language, conduct creative exercises, and collaborate.
  • Larger Groups: In the long run, larger groups will come back. During this next transitionary period, follow some of the rules of smaller groups: recruit fewer individuals, use larger spaces, and keep the discussion tight. It’s still qualitative research, so the numbers don’t matter as much as the quality of stories. When in doubt, make up for smaller group sizes with additional groups to round out research.
  • In-Home Sessions: This past year the home has become a safe zone and it may stay that way for some time. In-home sessions are likely best suited for online and virtual visits in the near future. When people do feel comfortable allowing people into their homes, go with purpose. Keep the sessions shorter (think 60 minutes versus 120 or more), smaller teams (two researchers instead of a gaggle of researchers/clients), use homework to prepare people to show you what you want to see, and stage as much outside or in larger spaces within the home as possible.

Some things to keep in mind when designing in-person research in the near future:

  • Keep research teams small. I don’t believe in the post-Covid era people will want to be around larger client teams. Best case it will likely be two from the research/moderation team and one client observing. Intimacy is key.
  • Keep research focused. Participants are going to expect to be in and out of in-person sessions as soon as possible and expect you to keep to the length used during recruitment.
  • All of this comes with a caveat. Consumers in different states will behave differently. Know the climate on the ground before you adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to in-person qualitative. States like Texas or Florida may be ready for it before New York or California. A hybrid approach may be important depending on the study’s objectives and insight needs.
  • Also consider consumer health concerns. Will you or your facility require proof of vaccination, wellness checks, etc.? Will you have extra masks on hand in case they’re needed? Do you lay out ground rules regarding masks, social distancing, and other health methods as part of the invite? Planning for those contingencies will be an important, additional step.
  • Speaking of one-size-fits-all, in person and virtual each have their strengths and challenges worth considering. Figure out what your objectives demand and adapt to collect the insights you need.
  • Be adaptable. Leave time for rescheduling, cancellations, loosening quotas, etc. when you’re on the road. People will have things come up based on how the world is. Don’t expect perfection.
  • Consumer research is going to be more important than ever in the next few years. Behavior will not revert to pre-Covid patterns. Even if people feel invincible, many of the changes they’ve made are likely here to stay. There will be more working from home with more demand for convenience (delivery, curbside pick-up, free shipping, enhanced ecommerce, etc.). Understanding these lifestyle changes will be important both in terms of a study’s logistics and the research objectives themselves.

Finally, we may need to be more transparent to convince people to participate. Letting them know the exact time commitment, how many people will join them, vaccination/health status, any activities, etc. ahead of time will encourage better show rates and participation.

In-person qualitative research is coming back, and while it may look different sometimes, it still has its purpose. As situations continue to evolve, we here at W5 will keep thinking about in-person qualitative research and the opportunities and challenges it will face.

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