Qualitative Research Conversations during Difficult Times
Every corner of our world, and every type of business, has been impacted by COVID-19.
In market research, we have seen in-person qualitative projects (focus groups, one-on-one interviews, etc.) move to online platforms. Like business meetings, school classrooms, and social events, research conversations have been able to take place virtually thanks to the Internet. There is a proliferation of tools at our disposal to continue our work under new parameters. Research technology providers have shared many success stories under this “new normal,” and I have experienced them first-hand as a moderator.
How the nature of the qualitative research conversations had to adjust
The past few weeks have reminded me that these interactions truly are “conversations” and not just information gathering sessions. While quantitative surveys depend on consistency and objectivity, qualitative engagements require active listening and adaptation to individual participants. Truly hearing someone involves understanding their state-of-mind.
Regardless of the research topic, it feels appropriate to touch on respondents’ experiences – medical and social – before asking for their input. Jumping right into moderator guide content feels like ignoring “the elephant in the room.”
I have interviewed both physicians and consumers during this crisis and unless a respondent leads the conversation in another direction, I have generally started with an informal check-in to acknowledge the unusual situation we’re all experiencing.
- I’m starting consumer interviews with questions like “First of all, how are you feeling, and is everyone around you okay?” or “Before we get too far, how have you been doing with everything going on in the world right now?”
- With physicians, I might begin with something like “I’m sure things have been very different for you lately. Is there anything you need me to know about what’s happening with you or your practice at this time, before we get into our questions?”
Most participants and their families are healthy; many are concerned about jobs, and all are facing the disruptions caused by stay-at-home orders. By addressing the challenges they articulate (“I understand, and I’m hearing that from others as well” or “I am sure that’s difficult, and I appreciate your taking the time to talk with me at such an unusual time”), I can both establish the important context around interviews during this crisis and also then move beyond it to the actual interview content.
People long for interaction
Shelter-in-place requirements surely play a role in maintaining pre-Coronavirus research response rates. Interview targets have time and flexibility, and an honorarium is as valued as ever, if not more. But there is another facet for many: isolation is lonely. Participating in a market research discussion is an opportunity to “meet” someone new. Many of us miss that type of interaction, but for someone living alone or without much social engagement, being a respondent has additionally compelling value.
Of course the objective for any moderator is to explore a research question and provide answers to our clients. We are not in this business to become friends with respondents. But in this unprecedented time, we should be sensitive to participants’ mindset and motivations. As always, we are asking them to open a window into their world by answering our questions. For now, we might also be opening a kind of window for them to look out from.