The Sad & Inevitable Death of In-Person Qualitative Research

Covid 19 was likely final nail in the coffin for in-person qualitative research. Tech companies never really warmed to the practice and now others are finding that digital work offers “acceptable results,” faster, at a significantly reduced investment level.

Has life as we know it changed for good or just changed for now?

The answer, of course, lies somewhere in-between and is impossible to predict at this point. On a personal level, I wonder if my newly found ability to save money by having three meals a day, seven days a week at home, is something that’s going to stick. The food at home, thanks to my wonderful partner and amazing cook Angela, is really top-notch, better and healthier than most restaurants. And I’m no slouch in the kitchen either.

We have settled in a very comfortable routine which varies little from day to day. For me, it’s wake up, walk the dogs, meditate, eat breakfast and read the newspaper, work, walk the dogs again, work some more, take the dogs on their pre-dinner walk, have dinner, watch an episode of something, read, walk the dogs one more time and go to bed.

A far cry from my life a few years ago when I was single and from three months ago when we roamed the world mask-less and free.

But I kind of like it. There’s comfort in routine, and a very other-worldly quality about the semi-isolated world I now live in. So, what’s next? Shockingly, I honestly don’t miss going out to restaurants that much. Especially when I realize how much it costs each week to eat out. A breakfast or two, three or four lunches, three or four dinners, drinks at coffee shops adds up to a considerable sum.

And work? My life for the past 30 years has been one long airplane ride. There was anywhere from one to four or more multi-stop trips out of town every month to see clients or conduct qualitative research. I was one of those people who loved to travel, but it’s gotten much tougher over the past several years. It’s harder on me physically, room in coach keeps getting tighter, and with all the airline mergers, the competition for upgrades is so intense that business class or first have become vague memories.

The pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Now living in domestic bliss, happy in my daily routine of meals and dog walks, I would not be sorry if I never went on another business trip in my life. Never did I anticipate growing tired or travel and restaurants, but here we are.

Still, I’ve always been a performer and an extrovert. This is now my second semester of teaching online. I don’t like it, and apparently, no one else does either. My favorite part of teaching is connecting with and mentoring students. I always got to campus hours before my class started to see students that had made office-hour appointments, but just hanging around the café in the main lobby of the building in which I teach allowed me to hold court as current, students, former students and faculty friends would walk by and strike up conversations. There were informal discussions before class, during breaks and afterwards.

I also miss being in a room with respondents, who consistently offer lessons in empathy, open-mindedness and humility. It’s amazing how personal connections can be forged in minutes. Whether in an ethnographic or facility setting, being with people in the moment promotes spontaneity – a critical element of qualitative – and allows me to fully take in the “vibes” I get from participants. Zoom, with all the benefits it brings during a time like this, simply cannot communicate body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and other “intangibles” about people.

And as I’ve written previously, Zoom or any digital approach can never replicate the shared experience of hitting the road with the brand team, taking in the research together and then ideating over drinks, meals and travel time. Personal bonds are strengthened, ideas feed off ideas, solutions emerge and become focused.

Should we lament the undeserved death of live qualitative research that started with Big Data and seems to be imminent now in the pandemic? Of course we should. Our insights just won’t be as deep. Brain scans, biometric feedback, new hybrid quant/qual methods offer great promise, but there is nothing like being with people in the moment for qualitative feedback.

It makes me even sadder that the isolation brought on by social media, exacerbated by the pandemic, looks like it may be here to stay. Many, maybe most, people will continue to work from home. It’s cheaper all around and a great time-saver for those with medium to long commutes, but we give up a lot in the process. No more gossip around the water cooler, drinks after work, “management by walking around” or casual, spontaneous conversations that lead to business breakthroughs. Less collaboration. Fewer friends. Less intellectual stimulation.  Digital qualitative will just be one more factor that drives people deeper into their silos.

Despite getting emails from every facility I’ve ever been to in the past 30 years touting that they are open, safe, and fully able to recruit qualified respondents, the idea of traveling to one or more cities, staying in hotels, and huddling in a small, dark, back room to observe four to six masked people sitting six feet apart just doesn’t seem to be on the top of anyone’s list right now. Including mine, at least for the short-term.

And as tough as it is to sell live qualitative in the short-term, the post-Covid world will not provide a reprieve.

Tracy Verrett, a senior creative strategist and insights professional who has worked both on the agency and client sides, echoes a widespread belief that digital is the “new norm” for qualitative research.

“It’s all about speed now, getting accurate knowledge faster. We’re not perfectionists. We don’t need to spend three weeks finding the perfect sample, nor do we need to spend time and money traveling.”

Verrett went on to say that many tech companies “never relied (on live qualitative research),” reasoning that B2B targets are simply “too busy” to attend research that would require an investment of time to travel to and from research facilities.

Tom Johnson, is head of research at Del Taco. Despite being in a very different business than Salesforce, he concurs with Verrett’s view of live qualitative.

I agree that a lot of (live) qualitative work will likely decline as people pivot to online focus groups and see similar quality of insights at a fraction of the cost and increased client viewing convenience.”

Johnson sees some of the shortcomings of digital work overcome by apps like FaceTime, which allows moderator interaction for ethnographic research in out-of-home situations, or tools like LivingLens, a plug-in that allows respondents to use their cell phones to take and submit selfie videos or laptop/desktop webcam videos in the middle of traditional online surveys.

He further states that with “the advent of 5G…quant and qual might be able to be done simultaneously with larger sample sizes.”

I never like to get into “better” or “worse” arguments rooted in nostalgia. Better to think that things are and will be different and unique in their own ways. And maybe, I hope, I’m wrong. Perhaps the need to pent up desire to get out and socialize will be so strong by the time a vaccine comes around that live qualitative will experience a major revival. Though I tend to think that while bars and restaurants benefit from a true reopening, the allure of saving time and money, especially with so many businesses playing catch up from the pandemic, practices such as work at home and digital research will be so ingrained in the corporate world to the point that that live alternatives will be no more than niche.

Clearly, I am late to the party here. I’ve done quite a bit of digital qualitative, but only in response to client requests. I’ve never tried to sell it until now. Yes, the pivot is rooted in need. I am out pushing online work more because I have to, rather than because I want to. It would not be a good business decision to dig in on principle and refusing to accept the inevitable.

So, for those of us, like me, who fought the onset of digital qualitative, it’s time to finally embrace the method with open arms. That’s not to say that I won’t continue to sing the praises of in-person work, With an emphasis on in-depth interviews and small groups, technology that allows us to be digitally “in the moment,” that will only get better with 5G and other digital tools, we will continue to deliver meaningful work.

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