Is online qualitative research as “good” as face to face?

Many people’s first reaction to the idea of online qualitative research is that it cannot be “as good as” face to face qualitative research, for the very fact that it does not incorporate face to face interaction.

As you might expect we would disagree. And we say this as experienced researchers, who have run face to face groups, depth interviews, accompanied shops, and many other types of research. We are not IT people who are new to research.

Every qualitative researcher who has run face to face groups knows that it is vital to put participants at their ease beforehand. They are likely to be nervous…they’ll never have done anything like this before, or at least not for a long time. They may well be stressed, from trying to find the venue or somewhere to park. They might have had a long journey. They may have been at work all day. They may be tired and hungry. They will all be strangers. They won’t know what to expect in the research. Will the questions be difficult or embarrassing? Are they going to look stupid in front of the group?

So, then the research itself begins. You start with nice easy warm up questions to help everyone relax and think about the subject area. Nothing difficult, that people will struggle to answer.

But then you get to the main part of the discussion, and perhaps some more tricky questions. Some people are reluctant to speak, so you have to encourage them. Others give answers, but you think they don’t mean what they are saying. You sense it in their tone of voice or body language. So why are some people reluctant to open up, or inclined to give answers they don’t mean? Could it be that they are in a room full of strangers, perhaps their views not conforming to previous responses? And maybe they know that if they say something different from others then that will attract follow up questions and keep them in the spotlight.

It is the very fact that the discussion is face to face that causes at least some participants to be ill at ease before and during the research, and therefore less likely to open up and be honest than they would otherwise be. So you need the face to face skills of the moderator to try to resolve the problems that the face to face environment has created.

Contrast this with online. Each participant can be anonymous from the other participants if they choose, so there is not the risk of looking stupid in front of everyone else. They can give private answers, they can take their time. They are likely to be in familiar surroundings, at home or work. Surely this environment is far more conducive to honest discussion than is a face to face group.

Now, we do not deny that a skilled and experienced moderator can create a stimulating face to face environment in which participants are relaxed and engaged. But we would just say that the same can be true online.