In addition to specific demographic, product/brand usage, and attitudinal criteria related to the research topic, experienced consultants may also consider the following issues, especially for focus group participants:
Select individuals from households or businesses that truly represent the target market.
Seek out persons who are articulate and forthcoming about their own experiences and opinions.
Discuss the issue of past participation with clients and recruiters, and set limits appropriate to your topic and objectives.
Exclude anyone suspected of not being truthful about his or her qualifications.
Choosing the setting
Weigh the advantages and limitations of each medium or venue.
In person - Maximizes opportunities for researchers and clients to observe and interpret non-verbal communication; easiest format for using visual and/or tactile stimuli (e.g., storyboards, prototypes, packaging); preserves the highest degree of control over who actually shows up and participates.
Telephone - Reduces or eliminates certain logistical barriers making it easier to attain geographic dispersion, reach busy people, include the homebound. This medium can also elicit more candor if respondents feel anonymous. However, it does lacks non-verbal cues of face-to-face interaction.
Online – Offers access to respondents who would or could not participate in person; has no geographic limits; offers potential for more candid responses; has voice and visual contact in some applications; excludes respondents without Internet access.
Deciding how much qualitative research is enough
Experienced qualitative research consultants will often advise conducting at least two focus group sessions and/or a minimum number of interviews with each key market segment (defined geographically, demographically, user type, etc.). The appropriate amount of research will depend on the range of issues to be covered, and the number and nature of respondent segments to be included.
Executing the research
Generally, a qualitative research project includes the following steps:
Finalize the project design, schedule, and budget
Arrange recruiting and reserve facilities
Develop screening questionnaire(s) and field instructions
Monitor recruiting progress and check respondent profiles
Develop discussion guide(s) and any stimuli to be used in the research
Conduct the interviews, group discussions, observational sessions, etc.
Debrief with client(s), possibly at intervals during the research
Analyze results and prepare deliverables as previously agreed
While not exhaustive, the following tips – organized by project phase – will help you to create and manage organized and seemingly effortless qualitative research experiences for you and your clients. The goal is to make the project go so well that your clients will ask you to do more for them!
Tips for the Proposal
Gain a thorough understanding of the objectives. Research buyers don’t always articulate the objectives of a project very well. Wearing your consultant hat, work with them to make sure you understand those objectives so that you can craft a research design that matches those needs. Even if objectives are articulated in an RFP, get your client to explain the objectives in their own words, because sometimes the objective in the RFP misses important details.
Present alternative methodologies, if appropriate. Decision-makers often like options. If you think the project can viably benefit from more than one approach, present options in your proposal. Be sure to explain the strengths and weaknesses of each option. If you have a strong point-of-view about which option(s) is (are) best, say so, and explain why.
Map out a schedule. End-users of qualitative research are looking to you to guide them regarding what can be reasonably accomplished within a set period of time. If a sample must be obtained, be sure that the time needed to get that task accomplished is included in the timetable. Check with your recruitment partner about how much time they need to fulfill the recruit. If this is an in-person study in multiple markets, be sure your schedule allows for plenty of time to get from one market to another. Consider how much data collection activity you can reasonably be expected to accomplish on a daily basis, and schedule the process accordingly.
Tips for Recruitment
Keep screeners simple. The objective of screeners is to as quickly and painlessly as possible find people who qualify for your study. If a question is not used to screen an individual out of consideration, it should not be included in the screener. Recruiters will love you for helping to make the recruitment process simple, straightforward, and perhaps even fun for the potential respondent.
Examine respondent grids on a timely basis. Recruiters should routinely provide updates of who’s been recruited, and how each of the recruits falls on key screener questions. These summaries will most likely appear in a "respondent grid.” It’s important to pay attention to the updates as they come in (usually daily) to make sure that the recruits truly characterize what you are expecting. If you spot areas of concern, you may decide that adjustments to the screener are required; it’s best to make those changes as early as possible in the screening process so that recruitment cost overruns are minimized.
Share the recruiting progress with your client. Clients are curious about who will be showing up for the interviews or groups. Giving them daily updates about the recruitment process sets them at ease that all is going well on the recruitment front.
Tips for Discussion Guide Development
Be sure that the guide matches the study objectives. Include an introductory statement for each section of your discussion guide that specifies how the section relates to the objectives, and what insights the client hopes to glean from that section. This helps the client understand why you are proposing certain questions or activities. This also helps to keep you focused on the study objectives.
Position your first draft of the guide as just that – a draft. Allow your clients to feel comfortable suggesting changes to the discussion guide. Make it easy for them to be engaged in the process. Tell them before you give them the guide that it is "only” a first draft and that you are open to any suggestions they have. Through this back-and-forth dialogue with your client, you can most effectively internalize the guide so that all data collection sessions go as smoothly as possible.
Include timing estimates. The actual time spent on a section will be more or less than your estimate. However, even rough estimates help you assess whether it will be feasible to cover all of the issues in your guide in the allotted time. If it looks like the discussion guide is too long, this helps you and your client further prioritize the issues. This could lead to trimming the guide, or perhaps expanding the scope of the project.
Tips While Interviews or Group Discussions Take Place
Manage the back room. Whether your groups or IDIs are done in-person, online, or over the phone, there are typically observers. Before the first interview or group session begins, identify one person from the client team who will be responsible for communicating with you about additional questions that should be asked while you are moderating. Specify whether and how often interruptions can happen. Also, if the group of observers is large, consider giving the group tasks to complete while they are observing, and have them report to you during breaks.
Schedule debriefs. While their thoughts are fresh, collect feedback from the observer team on a regular basis. Having this information tells you where their heads are at, which helps you craft your report. These sessions also provide a forum for the team to suggest changes (if any) to the guide.
Ask observers to debrief you. At the end of a series of interviews or groups, the client team would love it if you could quickly summarize your findings. However, until all data collection is complete and you have time to pore over the data, most moderators feel uncomfortable jumping to conclusions after a long day of interviewing. Instead, use your facilitation skills to gather valuable feedback from the observer team. Lead them in a short discussion about what surprised them (new news), what was confirmed that they already knew, what parts of the guide were most and least beneficial to them, etc.
Tips for Analysis and Reporting
Tell a story. End-users of qualitative research are busy people and need to absorb your findings as efficiently as possible. While long narrative reports in Word are still requested, there has been a move to create reports that are quicker to read and more engaging. "Data visualization” and "infographics” are buzzwords that have implications for qualitative research consultants. Using summary charts and tables are ways to make reports more valuable to clients. Another is to include pictures and/or video clips in reports.
Focus on the implications. Go beyond just reporting what you learned from your respondents. Point out the implications of the findings. Help the client team figure out what to do with the insights that were uncovered. Jump-start their process for taking action on the findings. Doing so will mark you as not just a researcher, but a true consultant.
Present your report as a draft. Don’t claim that your report is final until your client says it’s final. Be prepared to listen to suggestions for improvements to the report. Going beyond delivering a report and engaging in a discussion with the client about the report is the mark of a full-service consultant.
As communications technologies have evolved, so has the range of methods, tools, and talent available for designing, conducting, and interpreting qualitative research.
Popular methods now include time-proven classics as well as evolving and experimental approaches such as:
Real-time focus group sessions and individual interviews, conducted in person or via phone, webcam, text chat, or instant messaging
Activity boards or discussion boards where participants can engage asynchronously (and live, if desired) via computers and/or mobile devices
Research that focuses on experiences as they occur -- such as shop-alongs, usability sessions, and many types of ethnographic research that occur within the participants' own worlds
Approaches that are actively moderated, self-directed, observational, or use a mix of these methods
Approaches that rely mainly on text-based, oral, visual, or multi-media input (including body language, tone of voice)
Approaches that include methods drawn from biometrics or neuroscience
To create a qualitative plan, researchers and their client users often start by asking themselves three questions:
OBJECTIVES - Which approaches will best help us meet our reseach objectives?
When choosing qualitative methods or providers, the single most important factor to consider is: What kinds of information, insights, or inspiration does your research need to wind up with?Clear definition of "where you need to wind up" will be your best guide for decisions about planning, conducting, interpreting/analyzing, and communicating the outcomes of any type of qualitative research.
FEASABILITY FACTORS - Which approaches will be feasible, taking into consideration our resources (time, money, team availability, etc.) plus any logistical, confidentiality, privacy, legal, or compliance constraints? For example…
Will your research involve sharing condifential ideas or information with participants, and you cannot take any risk that they might capture and share this material with third parties? If so, you may be limited to using in-person methods so that participants can only walk away with whatever they can retain in their minds. When you share material with participants digitally, there is no way to guarantee that they will not capture that information using their computers, mobile devices, or cameras.
PARTICIPANT AND TEAM EXPERIENCE - Which approaches will provide the best experience for the participants, and the research/client team? For example…
In some situations, giving participants a completely anonymous way to engage in the research (where no identifiable text or visual cues are shared with other participants or client observers) can encourage much more openness on their part. In other situations, participants often value the ability to interact with people with similar needs or interest as well as the qualitative researchers.
Sometimes client users work with qualitative researchers up front to set objectives and plans, then the researchers venture off to conduct, interpret, and report back on the outcomes. But often qualitative research involves close team collaboration as the research/client team works iteratively to generate ideas, explore targeting and positioning opportunities, co-create and optimize product or services, and more. When this is the case, it is important to consider which research approaches will best support this type of teamwork.
Defining objectives, feasability factors, and what you want the participant/team experience to be like, makes it much easier to make the other choices listed below. Many qualitative approaches are quite flexible scalable, and an generate very rich, rapid learning.
See for yourself. Qualitative researchers and platforms or tool providers can often share non-confidential demonstrations or case examples to help qualitative users envision a variety of classic an new ways to conduct and interpret qualitative research.
Just do it! Committing a little time and money to experimenting with qualitative options that are new to you is a low-risk way to boost your qualitative expertise. For example, if you want to explore how mobile or online approaches might expand your ability to reach and engage with your targets, try adding some live webcam sessions or mobile-enabled activities to the schedule the next time you do in-person or other types of qualitative.
Does your research need to happen in real time, asynchronously, or both ways?
Do you need to include just one or a few cities, or multiple regions or countries? Or people in remote areas?
Individuals or Groups
Do you need individual interaction, group interaction, or some of each?
Top-of-mind or In-depth
Do you need input that's top-of-mind/ visceral/ immediate, or in-depth/ thoughtful/ reflective, or some of each?
Will target participants be able and willing to participate in the methods you're considering?
What will participants need to see, smell, hear, touch, or taste?
Will participants need to express themselves in speech, writing, or other ways?
When/where/how do clients need to observe or engage with the research while it's in progress?
Unobtrusive or Engaged
Do you need methods that enable qualitative researchers to be unobtrusive, highly engaged, or both?
Are there specific qualitative techniques you need to use (image sorting, laddering, mini-breakouts, montages, etc.)?
What evidence or documentation will you need to communicate key learning effectively -- Verbatims? Visuals? Videos? Other?