Life is Online. Research Should Be Too.

life is online-2000

Their faces bathed in a warm glow, the young couple at the next table were deeply engaged. They were smiling, laughing and starring with rapt attention at their smartphones. They were both texting, posting and connecting with people elsewhere. Occasionally they would stop and show their screen to the other, to share a moment. They were living their life as they normally do—online.

We believe qualitative research should be online too. It’s how we communicate, and how we connect with the world around us. Imagine life without the internet. You can’t, right? Imagine group discussions that take place in corporate facilities with one way mirrors, name tags and waiting rooms. Is that natural? This isn’t to deny the validity or relevance of offline qualitative, but rather an acknowledgement that our patterns of communication have fundamentally shifted.

Online qualitative research diverges from face-to-face research in some very helpful ways. It allows people to communicate the way they do in their everyday lives. There is also evidence of greater honesty and reflectiveness. And using online tools makes it possible to collect unique forms of qualitative information.

At Maru/Matchbox, we take an “online first” approach to study design and insights development, using in-person qualitative only when we believe the topic or business need makes it necessary.

Changes in Communication

The way in which we communicate has changed; so should the way we do research. In the realm of quantitative research, we long ago switched from face-to-face and telephone interviews to online surveys because that’s the way people wanted to participate. Qualitative research is moving that direction too, in part because it affords us the opportunity to collect information in new and efficient

The advent of the internet, email and especially mobile devices like smartphones and tablets have radically changed how we buy, sell, work and most importantly, communicate. Sending text and emails, and posting photos and videos are now as natural as breathing for many people, especially for those who have never experienced life without the internet.

As the mediums by which we communicate have changed, the nature of how we convey our feelings has changed, too. Consider this one minor but telling example. In 1972 the internet was just three years old and used by a very small number of people, but already Carnegie Mellon University professor Scott E. Fahlman was proposing that punctuation marks could be combined like this 🙂 to mark jokes.(1) Now emoticons are part of everyday conversation.

Consider also how texting has changed the way we spell, how Twitter has reshaped the length of sentences and how the ubiquity of smartphones has exponentially increased the number of photographs taken and shared. Online communication is not lesser than face-to-face communication, it’s just different.

In her book Personal Connections in the Digital Age, academic Nancy Byam explains that “…mediated interaction should be seen as a new and eclectic mixed modality that combines elements of face to face communication with elements of writing, rather than as a diminished form of embodied interaction.” She explains that when we communicate online “Instead of approaching mediated interaction as face-to-face communication and finding it wanting, we draw from our existing repertoire of communication skills in other modes to make a medium do what we want it to do as best we can.” In other words, we adapt to the new medium to make it work for us.

We should be taking better advantage of how consumers are doing this by adapting our approaches to qualitative work.

Open and Honest

Market research depends on respondents answering our questions with honesty and openness. It stands to reason, therefore, that anything that gets in the way of honest, open dialogue should be avoided. Research has shown that in-person interaction can present some significant hurdles to honest, open dialogue.

Historically, we’ve looked to in-person interviews and observation as a way to foster honesty and minimize the distance between ourselves and the people we’re studying. There’s an implicit assumption here that, if we’re not face-to-face with people, we risk either missing something important or somehow people will be less honest and open in discussions. And while it is true we do miss some things, we gain others. One of those things is greater honesty.

“Everyday users on the internet—as well as clinical researchers—have noted that people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say and do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel less restrained, and express themselves more openly. So pervasive is the phenomenon that a term has surfaced for it: the online disinhibition effect”(2), explains psychology professor John Suler. This online disinhibition effect has implications that are both helpful and unhelpful (think Internet Trolls).

In the realm of research, this greater honesty is helpful in that we reduce social desirability bias. When people communicate, part of our social standard is to try to be agreeable. It’s a kind of grease on the gears of social interaction. But sometimes that gets in the way of collecting helpful information.

Research has long shown that studies done using computers have less social desirability bias.(3) People are also more willing to discuss sensitive topics online, even things like sexually transmitted diseases.(4) It has also been shown that problem solving can work better online than face-to-face.(5)

The online space creates a distance between the moderator and the respondent, limiting the pressure to please the person we’re in front of. The distance gives respondents more freedom to bluntly state their opinion, with less concern for whether it’s offensive or potentially pleasing or displeasing. That’s a very helpful characteristic when it comes to getting at the truth of what people think.

In the Moment, and Reflexive Too

Honest input and feedback often requires time and space for thoughtful self-evaluation. In-person research often gives primacy to immediate responses to questions; there’s only limited time and space for that considered thought before responding. With online qualitative, however, it is possible to be very flexible with timing. That means you can be providing feedback at the very moment you are engaged with the topic at hand. For example, you can participate in a qualitative research project on shopping by taking your phone with you and answering questions while you are actually in the aisle making choices. You can also take photos or a video of the shopping journey, providing a context and immediacy that simply is not possible in an in-person focus group.

While online research allows for immediacy, it also enable pauses for reflection by both moderators and participants. A lot of qualitative research is concerned with trying to figure out why we do what we do. To do that we have to engage in what Daniel Kahnemann calls “system 2” thinking—which is characterized as slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, and conscious (6). That kind of thinking benefits from time for reflection, something we don’t generally have in the general flow of conversation. An online qualitative venue allows for more time to respond giving participants time to think about what they want to express, to frame arguments, and to clearly express the “why”.

Online qualitative also allows for an ongoing, iterative discussion that can unfold over days or even weeks. This gives moderators ample time to themselves reflect on what people are saying and then respond with thoughtful investigation and follow up questions.

Online Qualitative Research is Different

There’s a time and place for everything. Online qualitative research is not the same as a focus group. You often don’t see the respondents face-to-face and you don’t get M&Ms in the backroom. But you do get photos and videos, greater honesty, time for reflection, and the ability to gather in the moment information.

Online qualitative research is different. We are fundamentally adapting our qualitative approaches to account for it. And that’s a good thing.


  1. J. Anderson, Imagining the Internet. Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield. 2005
  2. J. Suler, The Online Disinhibition Effect, Cyberpsychology & Behavior Volume 7, Number 3, 2004
  3. W. Richman, S Kiesler, S Weisband, F. Drasgow, A meta-analytic study of social desirability distortion in
    computer-administered questionnaires, traditional questionnaires, and interviews. Journal of Applied Psychology,
    Vol 84(5), Oct 1999, 754-775
  4. K G Ghanem, H E Hutton, J M Zenilman, R Zimba, E J Erbelding, Audio computer assisted self interview and
    face-to-face interview modes in assessing response bias among STD clinic patients, Sexually Transmitted
    Infections 2005;81:421-425
  5. M Qiu, and D. McDougall, Foster strengths and circumvent weaknesses: Advantages and disadvantages of
    online versus face-to-face subgroup discourse. Computers & Education, 2013. 67: p. 1-11.
  6. D Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
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