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Online qual should go way further than webcam groups alone

This is the first of a four part series from The Research Society presenter, Tom Woodnutt.


It’s natural to look at the future, through the lens of the past.  But that means many of us are falling short, when it comes to doing qualitative research online. 

If you substitute face-to-face groups with webcam groups, then you are not getting the most out of technology.  It may make logical sense.  But in practice, webcam groups face a number of shortcomings.  The solution is to embrace asynchronous online and mobile methods. 

Five shortcomings of webcam groups
a. Participants are easily bored and disengaged 
There’s nothing worse than losing the interest of participants. No amount of moderator smiles or words of encouragement can keep them motivated, when they have to wait for the others to speak before they can.  As we all know, if you lose the crowd, it can easily have a negative impact on the research. 

b. There is not enough time to listen to people in detail 
Time pressure means you have to move on quickly, from one person to the next, which reduces probing, and depth of insight.  Only one person can speak at once.  So even if you pay 8 people for 2 hours of their time, you get less than 15 minutes per person (especially if you factor in time for moderators to talk).  

c. The flow of conversation is stilted 
In face-to-face group discussions the dynamics and energy flow fluidly; people know when it’s their turn to speak.  In online groups, that energy and fluidity is lost.  They sometimes speak over each other and can feel anxious about whether it’s their turn.  All of which creates negative energy and a stilted conversation.  

d. Cognitive biases reduce the validity of responses 
Webcam groups face the same shortcomings of face to face groups in relation to cognitive bias.  People struggle to accurately remember what they did when they rely on recall, out of context.  And they are influenced by what others in the group say.  So, the validity is reduced. 

e. Risks of technology problems and non-attendance 
Despite the claims of wifi providers, people often have bandwidth problems.  This translates into people dropping out or freezing in webcam groups.  Yes, you can over-recruit (which is expensive), but if someone fails to attend, you can end up with too few.  

The solution: asynchronous online and mobile qualitative 
The real value of online technology to qualitative research is not in replicating the past; it is using technology to do things you couldn’t before.  Asynchronous online qualitative research (i.e. conversations are spread across a few days, and not in real-time) – overcomes the problems above. 

a. More Participant engagement and depth 
In asynchronous online qualitative research, you get way more depth and engagement.   People give feedback in parallel.  And you can probe them without it being at the expense of others talking.  They take part at their convenience each day and so are fully engaged and not bored waiting. 

b. Purity of contextually sensitive and private feedback 
Participants can feedback in private and so are not influenced by the presence or words of others.  This encourages more emotional disclosures, less posturing and reduces social influence.  Mobile allows feedback in real-world contexts. So, things are remembered that would have been forgotten when sat in front of the computer. 

c. Lower risk of technology failure or attendance drop outs
If someone has a dodgy wifi connection, they can still share their feedback.  If someone fails to turn up, they can be easily replaced and catch up with any missed questions.  It reduces risk and stress of the researcher. 

If you’re good at moderating group discussions.  You can be good at asynchronous online and mobile qual.  However, there are some nuances that you need to appreciate in order to master it.


If you want to master asynchronous online and mobile methods check out Tom’s upcoming course with The Research Society – starting 16 March. Learn more about our ‘Mastering Online and Mobile Qualitative Research’ Masterclass here.

If you or your team are looking for an introduction to qualitative research the Research Society’s popular Fundamentals of Qualitative is also running on 18 & 19 March (2 half days). Find out more here.

Author: Tom Woodnutt

Tom is an award winning strategist and researcher with expertise in online and mobile qualitative research.  He ran his first online qual project back in 2007 and today, his consultancy Feeling Mutual, specialises in online qualitative methods.  He runs training for leading research and digital agencies and has been a digital skills trainer for the AQR (Association of Qualitative Researchers). Clients include Sony, BBC and a number of other global brands.

About The Research Society 1079 Articles
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