2020 has awakened the sleeping giant of remote qualitative research methods. The global pandemic is forcing online qualitative into the mainstream. For those not well-versed in its intricacies, the result can be a double whammy of complicated processes and underwhelming insights.
Though many research tools claim to make research “automated,” “plug and play” or even “unmoderated,” online qualitative research really requires creativity and nuance from your team. Most virtual research tools today are imperfect, and it is our job, as researchers, to adapt and create workarounds to get the most out of what we have at our disposal. When approached as a powerful, flexible tool, some platforms can go beyond being a mere complement to in-person research to a robust site for all ethnographic workflows. We want to share with you the keys to our success in maintaining quality insights when moving our ethnographic research studies online.
When sitting across from a participant we have plenty of resources at our disposal. Gesture, body language, shared space, objects, and movement all help us connect with out participants and elicit powerful stories and observations. How do we approach the challenge of doing robust ethnography when all of that is gone? How do we get juicy discoveries that lead to powerful realizations when we can only interact through a screen? In order to create compelling and honest engagement in remote research, we must embrace authenticity and creativity as our guiding principles.
Create a Sense of Purpose
At any given moment, people really like knowing the answer to the question “Why are we here?” Providing an answer during the very first interaction with respondents lays solid groundwork for engagement. When participants are on-boarded, set the vision and give them a sense of purpose. Let them know that their contribution is important and will influence change, such as:
- develop an exciting new brand
- create new product innovations
- perfecting a new product that will be on shelves next year
- inspiring marketing campaigns and messaging
- charting a course to the future of an industry
- driving better consumer experiences
Having an impact on some future creation can be a more personal and powerful incentive than just money. By offering a purpose-driven answer to “Why are we here?” you can lower the barriers between respondent and researcher and provide energy and motivation for their participation in the study.
Always Be Human
Just because we are using a machine does not mean that we should act like one. As we have all learned from constantly being on Zoom during the pandemic, it is easy to develop a sense of distance or detachment from the people you are communicating with remotely. If your participants feel this way, it will show in your data. Our team uses digital facilitation and communication techniques to keep the humanity present in our research from start to end.
As a moderator, you can help participants frame their experience as natural and authentic. Through the participant instructions, follow-up questions and reminder messages can reinforce an informal, conversations, playful, in a word, normal. Even small changes in terminology - like calling objects to be evaluated “gifts” instead of “stimuli” – creates a tone aligned with authentic human experiences. Gifts connect; stimuli create detachment.
Building authentic humanity into your remote research will create sticky, impactful data and help you avoid responses that feel more like survey box-checking than rich qualitative insights.
The Art of Provocation
Triggering participants creativity is another great way to deepen participant engagement and help them to shed new light on their lives all while you listen and observe. The power of creativity sits in asking the interesting questions instead of the obvious ones. Instead of asking static questions, activities and missions that creatively provoke or reframe thinking can push participants to deeper insights about themselves. Opportunities to insert creativity can be found by simply reviewing the questions on your research guide.
- Need to tap into the why behind brand loyalty?
Consider having respondents write a love letter to a brand, product, service.
- Need to understand initial brand assumptions and associations? Have participants create a mood board with whatever is most top-of-mind for a brand or product.
- Need to understand consumer usage and associated triggers? Have participants complete a mad-lib activity to fill-in blanks based on key scenarios.
- Need to uncover consumer feelings of brand or product abandonment? Let them start a letter with "Dear John" and see how they explain the brand break up in their own words.
- Need to capture a feelings of loss, comparison, reflection or behavioral change? Ask participants to write a letter to their older selves or younger selves about the brand, object or situation you are studying.
There are many ways to stoke the creativity of participants. Collages and MadLib-like fill-in-the-blank exercises offer familiar structures through which to share. Like unboxing, these are also fun and liberating, while they push beyond System-1 reactions to more analytical reflection.
Use Journeys as Narrative Tools
Though often considered to be a research output, Journey maps are really just one form of a human universal storytelling. With some examples and guidance, participants can visually illustrate what they did and how they felt along the way. Let them sketch, layer and title their journey along with any text.
Encourage a Good Tantrum
Lastly, do not underestimate the power of a rant. Nothing unites people more than communal griping. Encouraging venting or even creating a space for adult “tantrums” can be a fun way to give adults permission to complaint and vent. Any creative device that breaks mental and emotional barriers helps participants broker a deeper honesty, not just in their responses, but also in the responses of others.