Research on Research: A Case Study Examination of the Quality, Cost, & Speed of Online Qualitative Research
by Accelerant Research
Accelerant Research conducted a "BlogNography" to test the viability of an online platform to facilitate a truly in-depth study in qualitative research.
This content is an excerpt from the longer report that includes extended detailed findings. Download the full version here.
For decades, face-to-face (F2F) interviewing, as the method for conducting qualitative research, has been viewed as the optimal condition for collecting data. By being present at the time data are collected, a skilled qualitative research consultant (QRC) can listen to and understand the direct answers that participants give to the QRC’s questions and combine those data with visual cues from non-verbal behavior such as body language and facial expressions, as well as with word emphasis and voice inflection. In so doing, that QRC may get a deeper understanding and a clearer view of participants’ attitudes, self-reported behavior, and the emotional basis for their actions, over and above what is afforded by verbal data alone.
Yet, when we review the history of quantitative market research, we see that what began as F2F interviewing (whether done by door-to-door or mall intercepts), eventually shifted to different methodologies which capitalized on advances in technology. These became opportunities for our industry to drive down study costs and time requirements. Over time, study methods migrated to computer assisted telephone interviews (CATI) which, in turn, was followed by the Internet. Each shift was caused by the cost and time benefits to organizations that commissioned research, as well as the proven viability of the method to the market research industry. Nowadays, it is only under special circumstances that a quantitative study will deploy a F2F method, having to do with certain characteristics of the target population or the test stimuli or some other unique set of conditions.
Granted, quantitative research does not have at its core the quality standard of yielding data that are in-depth and emotionally-based as does its qualitative counterpart. Rather, quantitative data that are high quality are closely representative of a population so that statistical tests of significance can be performed and inferences can be drawn. In contrast, qualitative research must yield data that reflect the dynamic interrelationships between an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. These studies are designed to pose short, open-ended questions, receive detailed answers and, based on those answers, probe with other questions that may not necessarily have been planned before the outset of the study. The QRC must use special interviewing skills that enable the discussion to veer into unplanned directions and otherwise seize opportunities for a deeper glimpse into the inner workings of study participants’ hearts and minds.
Perhaps now we have reached a point during which new technologies may be used in qualitative research to provide similar reductions in cost and time and provide more options to QRCs in offering new, alternative solutions to clients’ needs that may be more appropriate than traditional ones alone. For that matter, these same technologies could also be used to augment qualitative research by combining them with F2F participant interaction. Study costs and cycle times may be sharply reduced, surely. But if the quality of the data was comparable or represented a worthwhile trade-off, the entire market research industry and all of its participating members would benefit. QRCs, in particular would be able to provide solutions to clients that may be more appropriate to the study objectives using entirely non-F2F or hybrid methods, and this would enable them to provide better service. Also, there would be increased capacity by freeing up time that would be otherwise spent traveling. Less considered but of distinct importance is that the carbon footprint associated with a given study can be reduced or virtually eliminated, too.
So, the question may be asked “are there Internet-based technologies that can be leveraged to conduct in-depth qualitative research in a way that affords the professional QRC the opportunity to exercise all the alacrity and prowess that is brought to bear in a typical F2F study?”
As it is, social media usage has developed and become widespread very quickly. Social networks, blogsites, and other online “beehives” appear to be all around us. Millions of people continue to adopt social media sites as their primary source of all kinds of information. Over the past few years, more and more of the general population has embraced the social networking phenomenon. Blogging, for example, has become widespread and continues to grow. The term “blog” (a portmanteau of the term "web log") is a type of website usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. This term only recently came into existence, but now is a household word. For all intents and purposes, blogging has become a comfortable, almost natural form of interpersonal communication in today’s society.
So, if blogging is as common a behavior as we assume, we can combine the ease with which general consumers blog with current mainstream technologies, such as broadband connectivity and digital technology, and use it to facilitate qualitative studies in market research. The potential benefits of doing so include those for organizations, QRCs, and the market research industry as a whole.
Based on these observed conditions, we set out to test the viability of an online platform to facilitate a truly in-depth study in qualitative research, an ethnography, which we reasoned would be the optimal litmus test of these assumptions. In essence, if we were successful in conducting a “BlogNography,” we would have demonstrated that we can use technology to improve conditions for qualitative research in general. It was our main goal in this research to test and then tell, what we think, is a very compelling story to research professionals. That is, conditions have emerged in society and in technology that, when aligned, can alter the way in which qualitative research is done. The benefits to be gained are as great and similar in nature to those enjoyed by changes in methodology in quantitative research. As such, our mission now is to begin the process of raising industry-wide consciousness to the benefits of replacing in-person qualitative research with online platforms that are designed to capitalize on society’s comfort level with blogging and enable consumers to share their lives, stories, aspirations, fears, and hopes using textual and visual data.
What is more basic and fundamental to our lives than the American family? How better can we understand what is important to the family than by studying them while under challenging conditions, such as dinner time in the home? We chose this topic because we sensed that it would be rich and fertile ground for us to explore. We assumed that if we were successful in achieving what qualitative research is designed for (to develop an in-depth understanding of human behavior and the reasons that govern such behavior) using the Internet rather than face-to-face methods, it would be a clear demonstration of the viability of the online medium for qualitative research.
Life today typically contains several competing objectives and goals. Raising children, jobs, school, friends, extra-curricular activities, volunteerism, homework, relaxation, and sleep all have the potential to impinge upon the day and its schedule and demand attention at the expense of the other pressing needs. Since we are all part of a family, we know that there are many factors that shape, mold, facilitate, inhibit and impinge upon how the “typical dinner” is executed in a family. Consider social needs, historical traditions, biological and nutritional requirements, financial and budgetary limitations, religious practices, physical space, gender roles, political divisions of labor, time pressures, occupational characteristics, and not least of all, culinary skills. The constellation of all these factors contributes to the unique manner in which dinner is done for each individual family, and their blogging provided a looking-glass into their experiences and associated emotional content.
The dinner process provides a direct view of the real value placed by the family on getting together, conversing, exchanging experiences, discussing plans, developing strategies, and surviving as a family unit. There is only so much time and, more and more these days, there is less free time. Arguably, dinner is the event during the day when the distinguishing characteristics of any family unit is most starkly evident. Indeed, the way a family processes dinner manifests and reveals what is most important to the group and to the individuals that are members. Combining their blogs with our ethnographic research approach yielded a “BlogNography” on the American family as we immersed ourselves in their lives through cyberspace and witnessed their account of whether and to what extent their lives have changed and on what path they are heading in the future.
To facilitate this endeavor, we used BlogNogTM (see http://blognogresearch.com), an online platform specifically designed to capitalize on today’s blogging phenomenon and able to leverage the widespread access in homes to broadband connectivity and digital technology to test the viability of conducting an online ethnography.
We recruited 250 respondents to this study vis-à-vis the following screening criteria:
- Aged 18 or older
- Not employed in food service industry
- Not employed in sensitive industry (advertising/public relations, market research)
- Presence of at least one child aged 17 years old or less in the household
- Access to the Internet and to a digital camera or mobile phone camera, knowledge of how to upload photos onto a computer, and agreement to do so
The data collection process lasted one week beginning January 14, 2010 and ending January 21, 2010. Each respondent was given three (3) distinct assignments in which to participate, and we inserted specific probing questions to individual respondents based on their blogged responses to our standard questions over the course of this time period. On average, each participant spent a total of 60 to 90 minutes in fulfilling their requirements for this study. Special services were provided, with our appreciation, by Decipher who programmed the screener and managed the recruitment process for us. Likewise, Survey Sampling International provided the list of its panel members from which we randomly sampled to enlist our study respondents. The following is an outline of the Discussion Guide.
ASSIGNMENT 1: Present
Take photos of the inside of the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry (or other places in which you store dry goods) and upload them to your computer, then to your account in BlogNog.
Describe your typical dinner process beginning with grocery shopping, then meal preparation, serving, eating and cleaning up. Include answers to who, what, where, when, and how.
ASSIGNMENT 2: Past and Future
Describe the typical dinner process of your family when you were a child along the same lines as above and compare that to the current dinner process. Then predict the future dinner process for your child(ren) and comment on the influences of current practices on the future.
ASSIGNMENT 3: Projectives using Archetypal Symbols
Choose separate images that best represent:
- your typical dinner process
- you in relation to your typical dinner process
- your IDEAL dinner process
- how you would be transformed by the IDEAL dinner process if it existed nowadays
Detailed Findings: Current Dinner Practices
Nowadays, getting dinner on the table is not a simple matter; perhaps it never was. Several important factors play a significant role in how the dinner process for any given family unfolds. For some, it is easier than for others, but most balance their job schedule, budget, living condition, cooking space, and culinary skill against their needs for tradition, customs, food preference, nutrition and family togetherness. Also, they do this while abiding by the laws of physics, in terms of time and space, to prepare, serve, eat, and clean up after the meal is consumed.
Some general information was found, such as that “Moms” are still the household member that is the primary dinner chef. It is mainly her that cooks the bacon regardless of whether she brings it home or not. However, more frequently men and children responsible for supporting roles in the process, nowadays, whether it is in preparation, serving and/or clean up. According to these consumers’ recollections, their mother was usually the one responsible for dinner when they were children.
Another piece of general information found is that people’s schedules have more influence on dinner than it did when these consumers were children growing up in their homes. As such, there is a greater societal reliance on prepared foods from various providers such as grocery stores’ prepared or frozen meals, restaurants’ eat-in or take-out, fast food, drive-thru, etc.
I feel like a failure both as a woman and as a wife and mother because of my inabilities. This is not how I want my daughter to think "family life" is supposed to be. Because I am not creative enough nor a well enough cook, our meals usual consist of things like Hamburger Helper, Betty Crocker prepared meal kits or kits I can throw in the crock pot. On occasion I will throw something together from a recipe book but it never comes out right.
As family members describe their dinner process, they reveal aspects of their family life that are deeply felt, and it is these aspects that most poignantly describe their plight in life. As they do so, what emerges are a set of factors of varying levels of impact on each family’s unique dinner process. These factors can be dichotomized as external – somewhat beyond the family’s control, such as their budget and job schedule and internal – those factors that families impose upon themselves and somewhat within their control, such as nutrition requirements, family traditions and culinary skill.
Below is a description of how each of these factors affects the dinner process of the American Family as well as how they interact with each other in some cases.
This content is an excerpt from the longer report that includes extended detailed findings. Download the full version here.
Conclusions and Implications
As mentioned, the entire study was conducted online as respondents, representing their own respective family, blogged responses to our questions about the entire process of dinner in their homes: from grocery shopping to food preparation, serving, eating, and cleaning up. We studied their memories of their families when they were children growing up, and finally, posed several questions to have them predict what it will be like for their children when they have families of their own.
We set out to test whether in-depth qualitative research can be conducted online in a manner that produces consumer insights at least as well as traditional in-person methods while capitalizing on current technologies that can improve other research study factors such as cost, speed, effort, and data quality. Since blogging is a mode of communication that has been so widely adopted and comfortable for many consumers, we set our sights on performing the optimal litmus test – an online ethnography; one in which participants were required to tell us about some of the most poignant experiences from their past, confess to aspects of their present lives that they feel are less than perfect, and share their deepest desires for the future, not only for themselves, but more importantly, for their children. We collected hundreds of artifacts in the form of photos of participants’ homes, where they store, prepare, and eat their dinners. Indeed, we received more than we bargained for.
The consumer insights unearthed in this study are foundational in nature. That is to say, they are the kind of data that are used to provide a framework for the development of organizational initiatives such as a creative brief for advertising strategies or the grist for ideation sessions to seed product development pipelines. Quite easily, other objectives could have easily been brought to bear in this study, such as customer experience, naming/positioning, copy testing, and concept/product testing. But doing so was out of scope for this study whose sole purpose was to execute and witness whether online qualitative research, even ethnography, was reachable.
Our conclusion is that it can. Moreover, consumers seem to enjoy the assignments and their participation was worthwhile.
I did enjoy this survey!!! You really made me look hard at my family's dinner habits and made me think about what I could do to possibly change our family meal time.
This was a wonderful study, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Very creative!
- Ethnography conducted successfully online
- Rich, symbolic, emotional-based data were collected
- Data were gathered in the context of the subject of study where artifacts were gathered
- 250 participants involved and all data were collected in one week
- Online platform served as blogspace (http://www.blognogresearch.com/) for participants to tell their stories
- Hundreds of photos, videos and mountains of text-based data gathered
- Projective technique was utilized
- New solutions and enhanced service to clients’ needs may be provided
- Could be used to inform the design of quant survey for subsequent phase of research
- Could be used to provide the basis for creative brief development
- Could be used to provide grist for product development ideation
- Could be used for competitive intelligence gathering
- No traveling, no scheduling, no logistical constraints
- Fun and engaging for respondents despite the amount of work they were required to do
- Entirely “green” – virtually no carbon footprint
If we assume that the quality of the data in this study are comparable to that which could have been collected using a traditional in-person process of conducting these ethnographic interviews, then a review of cost and time requirements will provide a more thorough evaluation of the viability of this methodology. The table below is an attempt to directly compare cost and time factors among standard qualitative research methods by holding constant the number of respondents involved in a given study.
While there may be variations on both cost and time from one study to another or one research provider or another, the cell entries in the above table are only estimates based on general experiences and conventional wisdom in the market research industry.
In essence, for approximately the same cost of a round of six focus groups, an online ethnography can be conducted yielding over ten times the amount of respondent input. Generating that much more data drives down the cost per minute per respondent by over 90%. In addition, the total amount of time required to complete the study is reduced by one to two weeks. Likewise, in comparison to F2F ethnography, conducting an online ethnography can cut the cost of the study by about 80% and deliver a final report four times as fast.
This is not to say that all qualitative studies would be better served by an online method. Rather, the online technology that exists today may serve to provide new options, alternatives, and enhanced solutions, whether done in substitution for F2F or in combination with that method. As such, QRCs who embrace the new technologies may be in a position to better serve their clients. Client organizations may benefit through more in-depth consumer insights and more bang for the research buck, speedier to market solutions, enhanced geographic reach, and less wear and tear and downtime on its members.
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