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Over the past number of years, technological advancements have expanded the field of qualitative research, broadening our ability to connect with participants around the world. Conducting research through online data collection tools has allowed us to keep pace with the ever-evolving consumer market and has helped us bridge physical distance at times when in-person connection is not viable. For example, online data collection platforms allow us to conduct one-on-one sessions or even focus groups with hard-to-reach populations, such as health care professionals (HCP) or military members, who maintain uncommon working hours and may be dispersed geographically.

As our country and much of the world begin sheltering in place and perform social distancing to guard against the spread of COVID-19, online platforms have become imperative for continued data collection. However, switching to remote data collection is not as simple as running an in-person session online. As many of us have been discovering in our personal lives, interacting strictly through digital means has its limitations—it’s less personal and requires all participants to have a stable internet connection and moderators to provide troubleshooting support.

Below are five tips for transitioning in-person data collection to an online environment:

1. Determine How Suitable the Study Topic is for Online Data Collection.

Remote data collection can be beneficial for research sessions regarding sensitive issues (e.g., sexual harassment and assault) because it provides participants with an additional sense of anonymity, allowing them to speak more candidly. However, some topics, such as finances, could pose challenges to researchers hoping to conduct sessions online. More risk-averse populations, such as elder Americans, may be wary of recruitment efforts for an online study, particularly if the topic at hand is financial. To estimate the difficulty of recruitment in these instances, researchers should consider how familiar participants are with the recruitment firm or the online platform they are using for the study. For example, an online platform with an established recruitment panel will likely have built a relationship and sense of trust with its recruits. This relationship could help ease concerns that recruits may have about participating in the study.

2. Assess the Impact on Session Timing.

Remote sessions take longer than in-person sessions in part because of the lack of physical cues that help us manage a conversation (e.g., eye contact and body language).

Particularly during online groups, there can be awkward silences while participants decide whose turn it is to speak. In other instances, participants might be prone to accidentally talking over one another. The lack of physical cues also makes it a little more challenging for the moderator to regain control of a group conversation that has gone off track. It is up to the moderator to set the ground rules for an online session up front, acknowledging that they may need to call on participants, interrupt a discussion, or have a respondent repeat their comments for clarity. The moderator should also be sure to check in with participants frequently to ensure that they are hearing all sides of the story.

3. Refine the Discussion Guide.

When switching to online data collection, researchers should consider paring down their in-person discussion guide to account for the additional time that online data collection demands. A shorter guide would help target the discussion around key topics and ensure that participants have the space to express their perspectives and experiences. Researchers should also evaluate any activities they had planned (e.g., quick polls, material markups) and adjust them to meet their new methods as feasible.

A good rule of thumb is to remove or deprioritize one-fourth of your in-person discussion guide. This process will look different for each study. For some, it could mean cutting a few lower-priority questions or activities throughout the discussion guide. For others, it could mean cutting a lower-priority section entirely. If trimming sections feels too extreme, researchers should first try setting strict priorities for the questions they must cover during each session. Use formatting (e.g., bold font) to visually set the must-hit questions apart in the discussion guide and treat all other questions as back-up probes. If time allows, researchers should conduct a dry run ahead of data collection to identify any red flags with regard to timing.

4. Evaluate the Impact on the Study Sample Size and Quality.

Online sessions, particularly focus groups, come with unique challenges for respondents. In a virtual space, it is harder for participants to engage with each other and each respondent requires more airtime to account for technological lags as well as the lack of physical cues that would otherwise help manage the conversation. In order to provide our online participants with enough space to express their perspectives and experiences, we recommend limiting each online focus group to four to six participants. Doing so would allow the researcher to probe effectively during the session.

Switching to online sessions may exclude some participants who do not have access to the internet but would otherwise fall into the study sample. This means that the sessions may become less diverse. Conversely, remote data collection may make it easier for other participants to join: hard-to-reach populations with busier schedules (e.g., physicians) or those who live in another country or do not have access to a means of transportation.

Additionally, researchers should prepare for the possibility of participant attrition or lost data because of technical issues. If possible, researchers should plan to have some form of technical support for troubleshooting before and during data collection. Researchers should work with participants ahead of time to establish rapport and introduce them to the platform they plan to use.

5. Select the Right Methodology for the Study.

In online research, just like in-person data collection, researchers need to have the right tools at their disposal to accommodate their study. There are several online options, so choosing the right one can feel overwhelming. When deciding which method to pursue, researchers should focus on the features they need for the data they hope to acquire. For example, the team should consider the need for recruitment, interactive activities, backroom functionality, and technological support.

Although online research allows us the ability to conduct our in-person sessions remotely, it also allows us more flexibility in our methods of data collection. Researchers should embrace that flexibility and explore other approaches to traditional groups and one-on-ones. For example, perhaps a discussion board, which allows respondents to participate on their own schedules, would be better suited for a study with HCPs rather than a live online group would.

COVID-19 has significantly disrupted our daily lives. Businesses around the country are closing their doors and in-person data collection has seemingly halted, but that doesn’t mean market research has to stop. We must continue to adapt and meet our participants where they are. In this case, online.

I will continue to share virtual research insights as shifts occur due to COVID-19. Sign up for more perspective pieces from FMG Experts here. Reach out to our team to continue the conversation and gain additional resources.


FMG Expert

sam evans

Sam Evans

Senior Researcher

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