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Online Versus Virtual Focus Groups

During the pandemic, qualitative research that was formerly held in-person (focus groups, ethnographies, in-depth interviews, and user testing) quickly moved to online platforms. Fortunately, there are great technology platforms out there that are conducive to online research, including those that are specifically made for online research, and others, such as Zoom, that are less expensive and also work really well (if there was any silver lining during the pandemic, it was that suddenly everyone was very comfortable using Zoom!). However, as time has marched on, and the pandemic’s grip has loosened, many companies are still asking for online-only research and settling for virtual interviews instead of paying for travel and facilities so that researchers can be in the field, interviewing participants. Though there are cost-savings with online research, there is a lot that is lost, in the process, which, unfortunately, lessens the efficacy of qualitative research.

From our experience doing hundreds of online interviews during the pandemic, here is a partial list of what’s lost doing online interviews, versus in-person.

Online research disadvantage #1: Limited attention spans

I think it’s safe to say, for those who have been stuck on countless Zoom meetings during the pandemic, that it’s hard to pay sustained attention to online meetings at this point. In research, this is especially acute when we’re interviewing people online (whether in online focus groups, user experience testing, or in-depth interviews). People simply don’t have to pay attention because they’re not present, in a room, with the researcher and other participants. They can be responding to emails (while it appears that they’re looking at their screens), watching TV, doing chores, or on their phones. Even when a researcher reminds them to pay attention and not multitask, it’s difficult to hold people’s attention for 1- hour + online interviews.

What is lost from this? Well, for one, with people being scattered and not fully listening, they’re not able to respond to other comments, fully think out their responses, and ultimately, provide full feedback during the conversation. Lack of presence makes qualitative research very difficult — if not impossible.

Online research disadvantage #2: Lack of group conversation

When focus groups are held in-person, there is rich dialogue that happens between participants. A good moderator is skilled at facilitating a true group discussion, where participants brainstorm, build off of each others’ comments, and talk to each other.

The best analogy that I’ve heard for online focus groups is that speaking is like being at a 4-way stop sign: No one is sure whose turn is next, so everyone awkwardly waits, or surges forward (interrupting) and then stopping. In-person, this is managed through body language and being able to look at others and build off of comments. Unfortunately, this is very difficult to do for online groups.

For researchers, online focus groups are a watered-down experience of the rich side conversations, group dynamics, and in-depth discussions that happen when everyone is together, in a room, versus a virtual room. And the content and insights that come out of online focus groups simply aren’t as rich as those that happen in-person.

Online research disadvantage #3: Lack of eye contact

The strange thing about online conversations is that you can never be truly sure if you’re making eye contact with who you’re talking to. Where you are looking at on the screen may not be where their eyes are. Have you ever tried having an in-depth discussion with someone in person while staring beyond their head? How does this type of conversation go, compared to those when you’re looking at each other’s eyes, picking up on subtle facial cues, and reading body language? It’s really a transformational difference in terms of the quality of the conversation and ability to connect. And, at the end of the day, qualitative research is about connecting with other humans, stepping inside their worlds, and understanding how they think, perceive, and use products, services — and how they conceptualize brands. Eye contact matters, a lot.

The conclusion: When at all possible, go for in-person research

Though it may be more expensive, there simply is no substitute for the rich insights that come from in-person research. The ability to connect with participants, have in-depth conversations, observe body language, and experience group dynamics simply can’t be replicated virtually.

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