Virtual qualitative research methodologies existed pre-COVID and we at The Sound pride ourselves on our expertise to strategically match the right method to every business question.

For example, do you…

  • Need to better understand people’s relationship with a category? …Hello, digital diaries!  
  • Need to get perspectives from small business owners? …I see you, virtual IDIs! 
  • But – want to share packaging concepts? …No thank you, virtual focus groups…we’re getting on a plane for that one! 

However, the pandemic forced the entire industry of research practitioners to go all-in with exclusively virtual research, like it or not. So, we reassessed our approach to, and relationship with these methods.  

The great news is that we are making it work. We’ve had amazing conversations and learned what we need to set our clients up for success. But with the vaccine rolling out, the ability to connect with people in real life is just around the corner (fingers crossed!). While we’ve been surprised by what we can achieve virtually, there are some things that simply thrive in-person that we’ll be clamoring to get back to.

So, here’s a rundown of some of what we loved and loathed about virtual research, and how we see things playing out in the future.

Virtual Research: The Big Picture

What we Loved…

Continued, rich connections: We still connect with people and hear about their lives and needs despite the pandemic! They’re hungry to converse with anyone–besides their pets and partners–they’re more open and vulnerable than ever

Work From Home Coffee

What we Loathed…

Tech barriers: Online platforms continue to be challenging for those with a historic lack of access to tech, or quality internet

Tech issues: From slow internet connections, to login challenges, we’re never free of tech glitches – especially when it comes to less tech savvy audiences (e.g. ever have a participant get “lost” in a virtual break-out room? We have… and it’s as frustrating/hilarious as it sounds!)

Bbc Oops


Virtual Focus Groups

What we Loved…

Broader recruitment: A diverse spectrum of people in one “room” – including people in lesser tapped and/or rural markets 

Comfort: From the comfort of home, participants not only open up but have access to products that they can bring into the conversation

Platforms with embedded backrooms: Streamlining the backroom experience, negating the need to juggle multiple platforms to have direct client contact

Online meeting with devices

What we Loathed…

Unnatural conversational rhythm: The often interrupted and awkward rhythm of conversation in online groups limits our ability to truly leverage a natural group dynamic – the hallmark of what’s awesome about groups!

Small groups only: The tricky reality of virtual moderating means it’s messy to speak with more than 4 participants at once. We miss IRL groups of 6! 

Conducting stimulus-heavy research: Gallery style stimulus testing, interactive research (e.g. packaging, UX testing, etc.) proves challenging when virtual

Digital Diaries

What we Loved (still!)…

Rich multimedia collections: First-hand narratives, photos and videos provide nuance and depth

Broad-reaching: A broad perspective from a diverse sample on a large number of topics is easier through the Q&A and upload format 

Creativity: More time for participants to respond encourages creative thinking during projective exercises

Detailed engagement: This method has proved to be pandemic-proof, with responses and completion rates higher than ever! We’ll continue using it for a robust sample

What we Loathed…

Honestly… Nothing! We use digital diaries the same way with or without COVID

Self-Shot Ethnographies (vs. In-Homes)

What we Loved…

Unfiltered candor: Participants feel even more comfortable being candid during self-shot video diaries, particularly on sensitive topics like debt or illness

Integrated into their routine: Participants can more naturally choose how they capture routines as they happen vs. making them happen while we’re in their homes

Self-expression: Self-shot video gives them freedom to express themselves in creative or personalized ways

A boy is video calling

What we Loathed…

Losing the ethnographic advantage: In-person in-homes can lead to observable yet unspoken truths and follow-up questions (often lost in a virtual experience)

Building rapport: In-person helps build a connection that encourages free-flowing conversation, dynamic, in-the-moment probes, and organic information volunteered

What we’ll do in the Future…

2020 put virtual methodologies to the test. It forced a whole field to experience the limitations and strengths of these virtual versions of research, allowing us to hone our strategies for the future.

Focus Groups: Some types of focus groups do really well virtually (for example, conversations to understand needs, wants, and opinions) while others must be done IRL (for example, concept evaluation with tactile stim) 

Digital Diaries and IDI’s: We’ll carry on!

Online ethnography: When it comes to topics that are sensitive or hard for participants to talk about, we’ll use self-shot in-home methods to help them open-up and share 

IRL in-homes: Observe their home and life, when in deep exploratory or illumination mode, and/or when looking to probe on unexpected moments

Though already steeped in virtual methods, we spent 2020 like our participants, learning more about virtual research – and we’re not alone! (check out these articles – (1)(2)).

YES – virtual research was a success! But…it’s also a mixed bag. Some things worked really well online that we didn’t expect – offering flexibility, convenience and richness (here is our virtual toolkit). However, there are still things that we can’t wait to get back to IRL, to better capture the subtleties, context and nuance that defines qualitative research. 

If this experience has taught us anything, it’s to continue evolving, experimenting and exploring new tools! A more efficient method might be right around the corner!


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