7 drawbacks of interactive whiteboards and drawing tools in online focus groups and communities

In a recent blog article we suggested that it is best to steer clear of certain “advanced” online qualitative research software features (such as interactive whiteboards or drawing tools) when running your first online focus groups or market research online communities.

This is not to say you should not use stimulus materials, or that you should not invite participants to include images or videos in their responses. Nothing of the sort. We are only talking about interactive tools, such as participants being able to add comments or tags to particular areas of an image, for example.

And this is also not to say these tools should not be used by more experienced online qualitative researchers. It is just that they are not always appropriate, and may be of less use than they seem. They also come with a cost, in the order of several hundred pounds per project, at least.

So, apart from price, what are the drawbacks of such interactive tools?

1. They can confuse participants

If you ask participants to write something in an answer box, and perhaps include an attachment, then that is fairly straightforward. But if you ask them to add tags to an image or use some drawing tools then this can be more difficult, at least for some participants. This can, of course, detract from their overall engagement with the research. So perhaps the solution is to only recruit people who will know how to use such tools. But the problem then is that this could lead to sample bias.

2. They can make participants uncomfortable

Let’s consider the idea of drawing tools. Instead of asking people to give written answers the moderator instead asks them to draw something. How many people do you know who like drawing, or think they are any good at drawing? Almost none? So what benefit could come from asking people to do so in an online group?

3. They can take longer for participants

Surely it is better to ask people to just write their answers instead of drawing them, because apart from possibly causing discomfort, it can take longer to draw something than to write an answer down? This could be especially true if they want to draw it several times until they are satisfied with the results.

4. They don’t enliven an online discussion

We completely understand the benefit of bringing in activities, such as drawing or making collages, into a face to face group discussion. However interesting a subject, sitting in a room for a 90 or 120 minute discussion group can be hard, and participants’ concentration can waver. But this is not the case online. Participants may well be at home, and perhaps have other activities going on at the same time as taking part in research, whether for a live online group or a community.

5. They are unnecessary

If you want to include a heatmap in your de-brief presentation showing, say, brand positioning visually to a client, this does not need to be produced directly by participants. You can ask a battery of brand attitude questions, and create the map from this.

6. They can trivialise the research process

Lets say you are showing a concept, with a packshot and claims and a strapline. Or you are showing several different packshots or straplines. By asking participants to click on certain areas and tag them, and make comments, there is a danger of them focusing too closely on the task itself. What qualitative research is about people’s feelings, emotions, and so on in response to packshots, claims etc.. and to do this they need to stand back and express themselves.

7. They don’t impress clients

We think that actionable, relevant, reliable insight, communicated in an interesting and easy-to-comprehend way is what impresses clients. Whilst this might involve results being presented in a visually attractive way, rather than just text, this does not mean that the data collection phase of the research needs to involve drawing or other such tools. Charts can be drawn from written answers, after all.

So, we suggest that a great deal of thought and experience is required before using interactive tools. They might seem alluring, but there are important drawbacks that can detract from, rather than add to, the qualitative research process.