Qualitative recipe book

Qualitative research still remains an intensely personal craft relying on keen insight into people and situations, but for the qualitative detective, the range of technological tools available to probe deeper and to report more creatively has increased dramatically with the arrival of technologies such as video capture, the Internet, and high quality sound recording.

Qualitative research is still dominated by the depth interview and the focus group, but more research now uses video-based observation (ethographics), in-situ studies and long-term on-line discussions. Pressure for fresh, deeper insight means that a range of hybrid techniques are used to elicit and analyse information.

Our qualitative researchers draw on a variety of qualitative research tools to design and implement a research study, including integrating this picture with other forms of research such as quantitative studies, and sounding out internal views and opinions in workshops where necessary.


Focus groups

The mainstay of consumer research is the focus group (or group discussion) so beloved and feared by politicians.

A focus group consists of 6-8 people brought together for a discussion moderated by an experienced qualitative market researcher who acts as the moderator. A typical group lasts about 90 minutes in length (a mini-group may be 4 people in a shorter timeframe). The role of the moderators is to guide the discussion to cover certain areas, but the reason for the group is so that discussion arises among the participants spontaneously. In other words, the group structure means that those taking part stimulate questions and comments from each other. In its original incarnation, this meant that there was less chance of an "interviewer effect" distorting the research, but with knowing respondents and the almost clich├ęd environment, this spontaneity and realism has become more difficult to achieve. Consequently, a major element of the success of the group is the skill of the moderator in steering the group so that key areas are covered in depths as they emerge from the conversation and deeper motivations are uncovered, not just social norms.

To guide the focus group the moderator follows a pre-prepared discussion guide and uses stimulus materials, but the moderator will also allow the conversation to flow making judgements to pursue potentially valuable lines of enquiry away from the formal guide. To take the discussion away from superficial answers and to tap into deeped motivations, respondents might be asked to look out materials from magazines, or to keep a diary in order to seed the conversation. And the discussion guide might be include tasks for the respondent to undertake, projection techniques ("if it was a car, what type would it be), creativity in addition to simple questions like "why do you say that". A key part of the moderators job is to ensure that everyone participates and has a chance to speak - visual clues such as body language, demeanour, and tone can be as important as the actual words said which means that viewing a group can be extremely valuable in understanding what was going on.

An alternative to a face-to-face group discussion is a telephone-based group. Although more difficult to manage as individuals cannot see each other, these work best if the group is smaller three to four contributors as it is difficult to keep track of who talks and to ensure that everyone takes part. On the phone, aspects such as body language cannot be assessed, but it does provide a convenient mechanism for researching difficult to reach groups such as business executives or otherwise widely distributed groups.

Many groups now take place online for online qualitative research. Although not 'pure' focus groups in the way originally conceived (as there is much less interaction between participants and a lack of visual/aural stimulation) there are many approaches to getting discussion, from chat or video-cam groups to slower email-groups or forum-based groups where the interaction takes place over a longer period.


Depth interviews and executive interviewing

Depth interviews (or in-depth interviews - IDIs) are the second major tool for qualitative research. These involve a one-on-one depth interview which like the focus group is guided by the researcher using a discussion guide (rather than a questionnaire) allowing discussion to be more open. In-depth interviews are the staple diet of the business-to-business qualitative research, pharmaceutical research and are common in consumer markets where an individual's detailed views are needed - for instance on a sensitive subject like finance or health.

A typical depth takes place face-to-face and typically lasts about an hour in length. However, shorter versions can be carried out over the phone, or phone and web combination, particularly for international research. The depth interview is in the form of a "directed conversation", which unlike the formal structured questionnaire of a quantitative survey, is designed to be open-ended, exploratory and to allow the interviewer to probe key areas of interest. However, it may also include standardised questions and questionnaire-like elements.

Like the focus group the quality of the interviewers listening and probing that will determine the quality of information obtained. In business-to-business markets, where issues may be technical in nature or focused on specific business issues (eg finance, channel issues, profitability or value in use), a specialist B2B researcher will have a deeper understanding of the issues and be better able to identify key business relationship issues.

On the phone, increasingly depths can be combined with stimulus sent simultaneously over the internet, meaning that telephone depths can start to have the same impact as face-to-face studies.


Observational studies

Observation studies (sometimes known as ethnographics or anthropological studies) are increasingly popular with advertising agencies and consumer consultancies looking for that extra frisson of reality. The advent of video camcorders and of TV shows like Big Brother, mean that consumers are letting researchers into their lives and can use video diaries, or be observed and recorded doing daily tasks enabling researchers to see what people actually do, rather than just describe what they think they do (much of what we do is done without conscious thought).

Gone is the artificial set up of the focus group, instead we have researchers living the life with respondents, recording their every move and action. No longer are respondents merely asked how they apply shampoo to their hair, they are asked to let us into their bathroom to film it. Want to know how a mobile phone fits into people's lives, spend a day with someone recording each call and button press.

The underpinning of observational study has a long tradition in market research. Many of the first MR studies were observational in nature, and it has a strong academic tradition in ethnographic research. Related formats include the accompanied shop and the accompanied surf, but it aslo extends to usability and fitness for purpose studies. With the ready availability of low cost video cameras and editing facilities, increasing numbers of qualitative studies will contain some element of video-based observation, even if it to record general circumstances and context.


Hybrid qualitative research techniques

Hybrid techniques capture the specialist designs that either can't be classified into one of the areas above, or which use a combination of approaches - individual, group and observational.

This might include friendship pairs or paired depths where two people who know each other are interviewed together, triads (three people interviewed together). Normally for focus groups, the respondents should be unknown to each other, otherwise you risk unbalancing the group or over-representing one strain of opinion. However, for friendship pairs, its the presence of someone who knows you that helps keep the discussion open and opens the discussion away from the interviewer's lead.

Among focus groups this can include conflict groups where two sides of a debate are present to see how they prompt and provoke discussion in each other, or the reverse affinity groups where like minded people come together and the moderator might act as devil's advocate.

In certain circumstances you can also ask respondents to keep diaries, to collect materials or to perform observational tasks prior to a discussion. For instance collecting a collage of materials related to a subject area. Alternatively you can start a group, set the members a task, then reconvene the group at a later date.

Obviously, the internet allows a range of different approaches, to be overlaid on the traditional qualitative techniques, including allowing a discussion to continue online or testing opinions from a focus group later with tools such as trade-off or conjoint research to see if the group maintained it's opinions. In some ways on-line research also opens up qualitative research to take in more voices. Although 6-8 is optimal in a face-to-face setting, for online studies several tens or even hundreds of people can be asked to take part in a bigger conversation, stimulated by questionnaires where necessary and so act as an online research community of voices to help guide a business

Delphi and qual-quant research

Qualitative research normally about exploring a subject, but not about numbers or sizing the market (though some people do use qual as if it is quantitive). The exception was Delphi research - most typically used for forecasting in new or novel fields, a panel of experts are asked their opinions, then the opinions of the experts are shared and each asked to reforecast until the group arrives at a common view. Thus the experts provide both numeric data and justifications, thoughts and arguments. With internet-based research Delphi research principles can be applied to a wider range of problems and not just among experts. The use of forums, online communities allows individuals to debate and then choose different options aiming for a 'wisdom of crowds' answer to complex questions. In addition, the large qualitative samples for Internet-based qualitative research means there are some possibilities for using combination qual-quant techniques running over a period of time, which allows things like a pre-test, followed by discussion, followed by a post-test and post-discussion. In this way a more holistic research picture can develop.

For help and advice on carrying out qualitative research projects contact info@dobney.com