Qualitative research has been around for many decades now, and despite the growing plethora of online tools, many techniques have more than stood the test of time: Amidst all the emergent research activities for which we recruit, the good old group discussions and depth interviews are still amongst the most widely used.
Of course, the subject matter being discussed may have changed, and the qualitative enquiry techniques employed by the researchers continue to evolve, but the basic formats continue to work well – in skilful hands yielding valuable insights to business challenges old and new.
What about the people taking part though? We’d contend that they have changed significantly, in contrast to the methodologies. A couple of decades ago, recruitment took place by word of mouth or lists in telephone call centres – slightly differently in different markets, but it was highly restricted. Certainly in the UK, being a ‘focus group participant’ meant that you were personally known to one or more recruiters… And as such it was highly likely that such a person got used far more often than was healthy, in terms of the creativity and insight they were expected to help generate.
There were also negative stereotypes about what kind of person this was likely to be, with certain demographics and attitudes overrepresented – after all, if something is a closed shop you could not join in with, it’s better to regard it as something you wouldn’t want to be part of anyway… Similarly when it comes to the subject areas tackled by qual, we find many stereotypes still prevail, and – however much content we create and circulate – we find people genuinely surprised that we might invite them to discuss the latest technology, financial planning, business communications or luxury travel, as well as the old FMCG standbys of soup and shampoo.
Because nowadays the big change is, the qualitative participant could be anybody. The ubiquity of online access to audiences and screening tools has removed the traditional gatekeepers and limitations. It’s widened access to the whole community, rather than an elite group ‘in the know’ – which can only be a good thing for the industry. I recall a memorable conversation with a qualitative researcher some years back who had been doing groups in London since the mid 80s, but could barely recall having seen a non-white face in any of them – absolutely inexcusable from a simple fairness point of view, never mind the impact on the quality of decision making that that fieldwork was driving.
So being able to reach new audiences, even if we have to unpick some of their assumptions in order to connect with them, is the greatest change to research participant recruitment. It does mean starting a long way back in the awareness and education conversation – what is qualitative as opposed to quantitative research, why should you get involved, what makes it safe and rewarding and interesting to do so? But bringing new people into the mix every day is hugely rewarding, especially when they’re people who would never dream of getting involved in any of that kind of thing.
Naturally this has also exploded the provider marketplace, because in theory anybody can set up a simple website with a database back-end and start building a list. Of course we hope that they are all doing so safely and appropriately, with regard to codes of conduct, data protection and so on, and that their recruitment is underpinned by solid understanding and experience and personal interviewing technique.
But ultimately in the New MR world, the qualitative or user experience researcher now has a greater choice than ever before – and greater access to more and fresher viewpoints and ideas. Which can only be a good thing for our industry and its future.