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Qualitative research and the Internet: friends or foes?
Qualitative research and the Internet: friends or foes?
Back in the late 1990s there was great excitement surrounding the technological revolution promised by the burgeoning World Wide Web. The world was gripped by dotcom mania as technology stocks leapt ever higher. We were told that "bricks and mortar" would be replaced by a world of "clicks and mortar". Then the bubble burst. The virtual world seemed to be mere hype.
In the world of research, though, the Internet was recognised as offering a new means of data collection. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was particularly the case in the USA, the birthplace of the Internet. In the USA the Internet is now a significant means of survey data collection, having replaced in large part postal data collection. As in so many other spheres, that which starts in the USA soon spreads across the pond. The Internet is now increasing in popularity across Europe as a data collection method, as Internet penetration continues to grow and experiments conclude. Its development is a little different, though, because of differences in established data collection methods between Europe and the USA.
One of the concerns in data collection is the effect that the method has on the results. It is true that results do vary a little between, say, face-to-face and Internet surveying, though there can also be slight variations between traditional data collection methods (face-to-face versus telephone versus postal). However, it has also been found that the Internet does produce reliable data and – importantly – it has been argued that the Internet also produces more accurate data in some circumstances because respondents feel more able to be open and honest in the absence of an interviewer. A study by the University of Westminster suggested that "People can sometimes reveal more about themselves to computers than to people, due to an absence of social cues. They don't have to explain themselves or face a fear of disapproval – and people just feel more free".
This is an interesting issue when considering qualitative research. Qualitative research has traditionally relied on face-to-face contact between respondent and researcher – and for very good reasons. As everyone involved in qualitative research knows, words form only part of the communication between people. Body language – gestures, facial expressions, eye movements, posture, animation – as well as intonation, hesitation and so on all contribute to human communication. In fact, how we say something can be as telling as what we say. However, the researcher is always a presence and therefore potentially a hindrance to candid responses.
Just as the telephone can be used as a tool for qualitative research, despite its remoteness, so too the Internet has provided an interesting challenge to some. The initial forays into online qualitative research sought to replicate face-to-face methods in the new medium, at first using e-mails and then progressing to synchronous, real time group discussions conducted via the Internet. Group discussions conducted online offer several benefits. They are not restricted by geography, so in theory participants can be located anywhere that has an Internet connection. Clearly this is advantageous when the target sample is very dispersed or is unable easily to come together to a single location. There can also be benefits in the relative anonymity the online environment affords for covering more sensitive topics. Online groups also save on the costs of hiring venues and moderator travel expenses (which can be significant in a country the size of the USA).
However, synchronous online groups can present significant problems that militate against these logistical benefits. Being synchronous, they are reliant not only on participants' typing skills but also on computer connection speeds. The effect of this can be a fractured, disjointed flow, where questions and comments suffer varying time lags. This serves to undermine the dynamics of the group and can result in the dialogue becoming a series of questions and answers between respondent and interviewer (a "dependent group") rather than a discussion by the group (a "psychodynamic group"). The time pressure also tends to result in fairly rational thinking. Thus, ironically, the technology that supports online groups can also hold them hostage, making communication difficult and requiring more time than face-to-face groups to cover the material. While it is interesting to try to migrate traditional techniques to the online environment, they do not necessarily exploit the potential of the medium very well.
Enter the Online Discussion Forum (ODF). This is an asynchronous tool that takes full advantage of the remote nature of the Internet. It is rather like a bulletin board, except that respondents are specifically recruited and have password access for the duration of the discussion. Respondents participate not only from any location with Internet access but also at any time (within any prescribed conditions for the research), making the process as convenient and user-friendly as possible. The discussion takes place over an extended period of time (typically over a week or two, though technically feasible for anything from a matter of hours to months).
The asynchronicity bypasses the problems of typing skills and computer speeds. It shifts the focus from the technology to the discussion; from the technology being something to negotiate to its being an enabling tool that supports the research process. This is an important shift, because it positions the technology as servant rather than master.
With its extended duration, the ODF allows respondents more time to think about their contributions, to compose their responses and to interact with the group discussion. With the inclusion of a range of projective and other enabling techniques – such as evocative images presented as stimulus to help respondents describe emotional responses – as well as careful phrasing of questions, both emotional and rational feedback can be obtained.
It is nevertheless important for the researcher to be aware of the nature of the written responses and comments from respondents. Language is, of course, just one means of communication. Words and sentences are not the same as thoughts. We perceive the world around us through our senses and make use of language to "translate" thoughts in our minds into words. The language we use tends to reflect the senses we use to code our perceptions, but we have different innate sensory preferences. Some people are strongly visual in their perception and communication, others are kinaesthetic (touch and feeling), others are auditory, and so on. We need to be sensitive to these different modes, both in conducting ODFs and in their analysis.
A particularly compelling feature of the ODF is the extended duration – which makes the tool unique. By conducting the discussion in phases, respondents are given the opportunity to spend more time thinking about the issues and to bring their everyday experiences into the discussion. This can be particularly useful for researching new concepts. By allowing people to spend more time considering ideas – in effect, to live with ideas – new ideas are less likely to suffer novelty-based rejection. Witness the rejection in research of the Sony Walkman as a concept.
Parallel testing work conducted by NFO to compare face-to-face and online qualitative has indicated that online qualitative data are "reliable". Based on good recruitment practices, we have found that respondents in ODFs are open and honest and often give very rich, fuller responses than in face-to-face approaches. Follow-up research has also shown that respondents are enthusiastic about the online approach: "I enjoyed this type of discussion as I was able to fit it around my own daily schedule, which can be problematic". And another comment: "I liked the opportunity to actually think about my answers". This is encouraging because ultimately, for a qualitative tool to be effective, it needs to work well from the respondent perspective.
The ODF is a unique qualitative tool. It cannot substitute for the face-to-face interaction and observation of traditional qualitative methods, but it does provide an interesting new set of possibilities.
Jason VirSenior Associate Director, NFO Qualitative, London
Dr Tom Buchanan, University of Westminster, quoted in The Guardian, 14 March, 2003.
Respondent e-mail feedback on an ODF conducted by NFO, November, 2001.