Reconnecting Online: The New World of Qualitative Research

Qualitative Methods Books by Casey Fiesler
Marketing for the past 15 years has been a game of numbers. Ironically, we have the greatest bridge of communication to thank: the internet. Researchers are crunching all sorts of computer use statistics, and have been for years. Website visitations. Clicks. Opt-ins. This emphasis transfers to general products, and for good reason.

Organizing large-scale qualitative studies can require months of planning, travel, and analysis. While cumbersome, such research was feasible into the new millennium. The internet’s growing prevalence introduced new challenges, however. Some particularly proved insurmountable for traditional techniques.

  • Markets are changing at increasingly fast rates
  • Development began outpacing research
  • Product cycles shrank
  • Iterative methods are incompatible with traditional qualitative research’s pace

The Advent of Quantitative Research and Its Impact

Quantitative research had no such hurdles. Instead, it benefited from sophisticated new tools. Affordable and fast, the method’s use surged. Designers and marketers began orienting themselves to these findings exclusively. It’s always useful to know how a product is performing. No matter the stats, however, quantitative research offers superficial answers for customer motivation.

In essence, developers had nothing but precedent to guide them. Stats on reception and sales can be helpful. They are also woefully inadequate for inspiring or testing new ideas. Introducing new products or brands is risky. Doing so without a clear understanding of demand can be ruinous. In the short term, anyway, faster output was mandating conservative development choices.

New Emphasis on Customer Input

Software is one of the few industries that continued emphasizing qualitative research. At least, qualitative research of a sort. Agile methods use an iterative design cycle that closely analyzes customer feedback. Many enterprises outside the tech field are now adapting the methodology. Doing so is essential for increasing engagement with customers habituated to the internet.

Online Qual’s New Scope

In the world of applications, though, such input is typically in writing: think user forums. Needless to say, not all products attract that sort of active or vocal customer. Language is also only one facet of discourse. Considering emotional responses requires more data.

Nonverbals account for a majority of all communication. Focus groups, interviews, ethnographic studies, and other approaches emphasize face-to-face interaction for that reason. Even more intrinsically, methods that include real time discourse in a mutual space also encourage greater inclusion. Participants unlikely to use message boards are findable in the field, after all. Their input can be just as integral for understanding the “why” of a product’s, or policy’s, reception.

Online Qual’s Resurgence

The days of broad, or blind, development seem to be ending, however. More and more enterprises and organizations are initiating qualitative projects. There are a few reasons for the resurgence.

  • True HD footage is infinitely more streamable
  • Many enterprises are scaling into Agile or iterative methods
  • Mobiles and tablets are increasingly available
While these are the prime incentives, there is one more reason: feasibility. Online methods are vastly more affordable and require significantly less overhead.

Detractions and Benefits

The only catch? These online qual transpires in a digital space. Perhaps the biggest hangup is that the researcher’s perspective conforms to the camera. Gesticulations and posture may be missing, for instance. The benefits, however, are without question.

First, online techniques increases overall access to data. The setting changes each session, giving researchers new perspective into identity. This also assists participants in answering questions. Sessions typically happen in the home or other environment, offering prompts they would never access in a facility. Answers and opinions become fuller, as participants are showcasing their lifestyle rather than recollecting it.

Sacrificing actual presence also allows researchers to cover ground more adequately. Studies that once require months now are accomplishable in days. This pace is far more compatible with the today’s general output of products and media. The crux is that most enterprises must segue into online techniques…or abandon qualitative projects entirely.

New Understandings of Markets

The effects of this transition are mind-boggling. Traditionally, qualitative techniques are either regionally fixed or incredibly expensive. There is something to collecting opinions by established fandoms or followers.

For instance, consider Disney Land’s and Universal Studios’ on-location focus groups. The practice also limits their understanding of demand. Not all consumers of Disney or Universal products travel to the theme parks. Exclusively considering reactions from visitors, therefore, can create some assumptions that alienate or exclude larger fanbases. Disney’s shift from the 20th century’s overt caricatures implies changing mentalities, sure, soft and clumsy as they are. It also implies demand for globally aware productions. The secret is that there was always such a demand. Disney only needed to find it.

Wider awareness of markets is doing a few things. First, it promotes experimentation. The first step of attracting new customers is creating products they want. Even more integrally, enterprises and other organizations can learn how their goods are applicable to new markets. Sometimes only a small change can make products more appealing.

More Connections, Greater Inspiration

Online qualitative research is not going to smash the world’s dichotomies. It does play a role in surveying them, though. Historically, businesses are acting less on presumption as their understanding of markets becomes more intricate. Shedding confirmation bias is a major part of the process.

In fact, more and more enterprises are adopting empathy as a corporate value. Granted, the “empathy” businesses value is for inspiring successful products. Whatever the intent, top exec’s exposure to their customers is nothing but a good thing.

From Collecting Perspectives to Collecting Responses

Stratification is one of the hurdles of this age. Workers on campuses and in skyscrapers see the realities of their larger environment, yes. But how often do they dialogue with their organizations’ customers? And if so, they are still limited to customers in their immediate. The reach of online qual expands horizons and informs perspective.

Of course, the social impact of qualitative data’s availability depends on systemization. Plenty of new research techniques are gaining prevalence. Eye-tracking. Biometrics. Text analytics. Neuromarketing. For how long will enterprises value customer opinion rather than customer reaction? Who knows. For the time being, at least, more and more enterprises will resort to collecting opinions because they must.

Photo Credit: Casey Fiesler via Creative Commons.

Posted 8 years ago on 18 April 2016

About Parker

Parker Benjamin is the owner of DMAD and has been writing for the web for over 10 years. He is passionate about design, Wordpress, travel, language learning, fine dining, and online marketing. Note: Some links on this site are monetized by affiliate programs - see disclosure for more details.

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