“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates, through Plato
“Unexamined responses are, at best, superficial.” – Alfred Korzybski
Back in the day, everything qualitative was called a “focus group”. It didn’t matter whether the interview was done in a group or if it was a one-on-on interview over the phone – pretty much all qualitative was called “focus groups”.
The key thing that made that research a qualitative project was the conversation with consumers/participants – a true back-and-forth, wherein the researcher follows and probes the narrative flow of the respondent(s). This is no longer the case. In fact, there are a number of quant firms that call open-ended (essay-type) questions in their survey “the qualitative portion of their research”. (They then machine-code and tabulate the answers!)
It seems that we now have two legitimate types of qualitative research – the main line that fosters and values interaction, and a more deductive style based on cultural semantics.
- Conversationally interacting with participants offers the opportunity to probe into answers and gain a more complete understanding of what is being shared. The positive aspects of this are that: a) the respondent feels valued and understood and thus shares more openly and honestly, and b) the researcher gains a deeper level of meaning with the opportunity to build on what has been shared. The negative aspect is that people like to be rational, and will try their best to answer rationally – even if their answer in no way reflects how they actually feel and behave when left on their own. This is why trained and experienced qualitative researchers are so valuable.
- The type of qualitative that analyzes semantics (e.g., social media research) and non-interactive responses to open-ended questions (e.g., Survey Monkey) is useful at times when we need a quick, top-of-mind, gut reaction. This can include online surveys and even online bulletin boards (OLBB) when set up with little or no interaction, but is particularly useful when using mobile technology to capture a person’s feelings in the moment they are interacting with a client’s product.
Considering these two types of qualitative and the broad range of techniques within each type, one needs to pick the right method/tool for the objective/purpose/problem that one is intending to solve. The concern with many suppliers is that they sell one type of tool and many times see all jobs as fitting that tool (“If your only tool is a hammer, it is tempting to view every problem as a nail.” – Abraham Maslow).
If we look at just the ways in which we can gather mobile information, the choices can be overwhelming. Recently Mark Michelson, (Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Mobile Marketing Research Association) presented at the Evolve Virtual Qualitative Research Event and shared a wonderful overview of all the different mobile methods available to conduct qualitative research. In the table below he shows that it is not simple or easy to determine exactly which qualitative tool is best for your research objective. And, this table considers only online and mobile platforms – it doesn’t take into consideration more traditional focus groups/IDIs or even using social media for insights!
The field of qualitative platforms and providers is constantly changing and more and more quant firms dabble in “qualitative”, often conducted by untrained and inexperienced newbies. This trend toward superficiality and commoditization suggests that you would strongly benefit from the perspective and advice of an independent qualitative consultant (e.g., a member of the QRCA – Qualitative Research Consultants Association), who has worked with many of these methods and providers and who stays up to date on what is available and useful. This strategy maximizes the likelihood that you will get exactly the right qualitative tool and expert analysis to solve your business objective.