Edward Appleton, in a recent article posted on RW Connect, lead with the a title that asked, “Can Online Qualitative Research Be Potentially Misleading?”
Appleton was inspired by an excellent presentation by Peter Totman of Jigsaw Research that showed how online persona were often very different to real-life observed identities, and that people were observed to express differently and sometimes hold different opinions depending on whether they were participating online or in person.
In his RW Connect post, Appleton postulated that there were serious practical implications for online qualitative based on the overall insight of talk that what you see online is only one version of the truth. He goes on to bring up several points, one of which was “If you wish for depth of insight, go offline.”
As someone who has been immersed in in-depth online qualitative research methods since 2004, and who also attended Totman’s presentation, I came away with a different take than Appleton.
While it is generally accepted that people express differently online versus in person, there is more nuance than simply online and offline. Someone in a public facing online interaction – Facebook, Twitter, forums, etc, will behave differently than in a more private online setting. Much as people may express themselves differently in a group setting with strangers than they would when in a one-on-one interaction.
In the last 10 years, I have seen repeatedly with the right study design, moderation and platform it is possible to get closer to the moment of consumer emotions and behaviours, as well as honest depth of expression. Many of the reasons listed above that argue against online can actually be made for using online.
It is true that you lose the visual and body language cues with online and mobile, but you gain access to sustained experiences and expression from participants. This provides great opportunity to go deeper in understanding people’s behaviours, experiences and emotions. While every research medium has strengths and challenges, absence of depth is not necessarily a default challenge of online research.
Many sensitive topics are actually better suited for online qualitative, as people have a layer of anonymity that enables to express opinions more fully. Using web and especially mobile, participants can engage much closer to the point of experience, before they have processed and rationalised. Context can be brought into the mix through a variety of activities that help enable participants to frame their experiences.
With interactions and activities that are focused on understanding people around a certain topic, and where one-on-one interaction are part of the studies, we see less contrivance.
The way online qualitative research activities are designed and sequenced can also serve to assist in seeing the authentic person. In online qualitative, researchers have the opportunity to control the environment – utilising both one on one interactions and group interactions to serve as a check and balance for how a participant expresses.
Ultimately, any type of research, online or in person, can potentially be misleading. Whether it is a leading question, a group dynamic gone awry, non-representative social media feeds, or a poorly designed survey, a main part of our value as researchers is to understand and control the dynamics of our methods and mediums.
Steve August is CEO at Revelation