Re-Thinking the Rules of Engagement for Virtual Research Theatre
by Roben Allong and Barbara Hairston
(Photo credit: Julia M. Cameron)
Savvy qualitative researchers are not waiting for a “new normal” to emerge. They are re-thinking engagement rules before they step back into the research theatre, post COVID-19. Engaging consumers post-crisis — when experiences across racial, ethnic, employment, and geographic lines are newly imprinted and quite disparate — is an opportunity to re-calibrate the way we conduct qualitative research, whether in-person or online. To state the obvious, no one has been left untouched by the pandemic’s sudden disruption of human behavior and norms; this requires a new look at the rules for qual research interaction.
While participants are available and willing to talk, many are still in crisis physically, mentally, and even financially. Qual researchers should not expect that study participants will be mindfully available or fully cogent in responses, especially given their disparate experiences. Post-COVID-19 study designs will require that we look beyond traditional methodologies and techniques. This post will outline five guidelines that can be deployed to elevate engagement for a more insightful study, whether in-person or virtual. These may already be familiar but are worth revisiting; how we apply them in this new normal may also help us elevate the practice.
First, be as transparent as possible to re-establish trust. Basic trust between people has been severely upended. Transparency is needed now, more than ever; that includes reassuring participants of the protocols that are in place to ensure participants’ physical and mental health before starting your focus group or interview interaction. Meeting vulnerable communities where they are is imperative to rebuild trust. Clearly express participation expectations and also acknowledge that the crisis has had an impact. This is especially important for online video studies where building effective rapport in a virtual environment requires greater specificity and clarity. Transparency helps reduce fear of the unknown and the unexpected that participants may not even realize they are harboring since the advent of COVID-19.
Second, create and enforce a no judgement zone that supports study participants as they share their truth, that may even be new to them. Avoid unconscious bias. Be especially mindful of how you ask questions; choose your words and examples carefully. Tap into unfamiliar emotions that they are feeling and expressing freely without judgement. Don’t assume that what you do in person—the tone, body language and energy you radiate to encourage respondent rapport and engagement—is easily transferred to a video platform. There is distance between you and participants and between participants themselves. Subtle body movements, tones, whispers, eye expressions that we noticed and took for granted can go undetected in a virtual focus room. Paying even closer attention is mandatory. Think about the things you do that work well for you in person and how you can effectively alter and adapt them to the virtual environment.
Third, be authentically empathetic. Don’t assume that this is a participant’s first Zoom “rodeo” of the day nor that they are a pro at video calling. They are still living full lives and despite agreeing to take part in the research study, may not be fully present. Allow yourself to feel how being unemployed or working from home, fielding multiple conference calls, applying for jobs online, managing a team remotely or household with everyone in it simultaneously, or home-schooling children for the first time, informs their attitudes and perceptions. Be patient and build in extra time for them to collect themselves and their thoughts.
In order to get a full understanding of mindset and behavior changes, it important to not only have a good representation but also cultural understanding across all ethnicities in order to uncover the hidden stories that lead to critical insights and innovation. Make it a priority to be mindful that, because of racial, ethnic, gender, disabilities, and economic disparities, the pandemic has had a disparate impact on various segments. Build a strong, sharing, and meaningful connection by better understanding diverse cultures and validating unique experiences.
Fourth, increase pivot-ability. As clients and brands pivot toward quick data insights from quantitative because it’s relatively inexpensive and fast, accelerated qual interviews and even faster analysis and reporting will soon be the norm. However, qual by definition is not fast. Getting to the deep emotional recesses of the mind and memory takes time. As Einstein advised more than 100 years ago, time is relative. Pivoting to nimble online tech tools that combine and speed up parts of the qual methodology (such as fielding hybrid studies, insight gathering, analysis, and reporting) is essential. Our current fast-paced climate does not allow for clients to fully “embrace” the qual process, nor do some want to. To meet those emerging needs, wants, and expectations with more speed and acuity than before, qual researchers need to re-think their process and deliverables.
Fifth, be even more curious. Everything around us is changing. The past, in many cases, is only a reference point. The more we hear from participants, the broader our understanding will be of the evolving impact of COVID 19. That means we have to be more curious and avoid the temptation to make assumptions. Try to really understand that things that were once tried and true may no longer hold that position, in the minds of respondents. Things that they believed were once under their control, no longer are. Where they felt safe before, even to the point of taking things for granted, they don’t anymore. There has been a paradigm shift. Explore ways to better understand and accurately interpret the new context from the eyes, ears, and circumstances of our study participants.
COVID-19 has changed the rules of human interaction — which is the equivalent of a seismic shift in qualitative research. COVID-19’s forced contact deprivation coupled with the accelerated wide acceptance of video calling for both business and personal use has hastened a rethinking of how, when, who, and why we connect virtually. As the frequency of online qual research accelerates, we have a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to adapt what we know and create new best practices to facilitate a different, deeper, more meaningful interaction in a virtual environment. Obviously, the ideas presented here are by no means exhaustive but are designed to spark alternative thinking. As you ruminate on all the possibilities, what approaches are you are re-thinking for this new post-COVID-19 research theater engagement?
Roben Allong considers herself a research “spelunker” focused on exploring what lurks deep in the caverns of the global cultural zeitgeist. As CEO of Lightbeam Communciations, she is an innovative researcher with over a decade of knowledge and trend expertise across a broad spectrum of consumers, brands and industries. She is currently a QRCA Board member and Chair of QRCA New York Metro Chapter.
Barbara Hairston has a broad base of experience and expertise conducting studies for public health education, K-12 education, higher education, and social issues clients. Through her firm Resources International Inc., she conducts research using a variety of online and face-to-face methodologies to deliver the best possible research solutions among adults/seniors, general market and African American segments, physicians and allied health providers, and stakeholders.