In a past life, I worked as a marriage and family therapist, listening to the problems and challenges of others on a daily basis. My job was to connect with people. A move across the world and job shift changed all that and, over the years, I shifted to the “I’ll just send a text rather than pick up the phone” type of person. What happened to me?
Some say that technology and the rise of social media is making us less social overall. All you have to do is look around in a restaurant and watch everyone’s eyes glazed over, looking at phones rather than connecting with those at their table to understand that sentiment.
A while back, I gave myself a challenge to be more present and make eye contact with strangers, rather than turning into a mobile phone zombie when out and about. On the bus or in a doctor’s office, I would put my phone away, keep my head up and wait for others to look my way, so I could offer a friendly smile, I was going to connect!
The only problem with this plan was that no one else looked my way and that desire for connection turned into boredom and irritation – “ugh, why is everyone so fixated on their phones?” (says the woman who the day before had been one of those people).
So, while locking us inside our homes for months certainly took us away from physical human contact, did it really make us less social? Interestingly, I’ve found it has had the opposite effect in many ways, particularly in my role as a researcher.
Since lockdown, we’ve been able to catch a glimpse into the homes of our colleagues, clients, vendors and research participants. We have all become more human. Jen from accounting is more real when she’s working in her lounge room with no makeup. An intimidating client is down to earth when he gives his child affection; and, how connected do we feel as a country when there is a collective nod of agreement at the phrase “sorry, my nbn is acting up?”
That Friday afternoon catch-up meeting that we used to sometimes miss because we “just had to get something out for a client before end of day” – we now attend religiously. Our semi-regular phone calls with clients have turned into weekly video calls and we’re seeing the faces of stakeholders more and more.
What does it mean for research?
From a research perspective, the increase in online video qual is one of the most noticeable differences for me. In the past, I found that many clients would put off qualitative research because of a) the expense or b) lack of understanding of online qualitative methods. Many organisations have team members comfortable with face-to-face discussions, but throw technology into it and things get a little scary. Even the previous therapist in me would cringe when one of my research clients would mention online interviews (can’t we just have a text-based chat?)
But with lockdown came the realisation that traditional qualitative research just wasn’t going to be possible for a while. The days of “how can we speak to someone face-to-face in regional South Australia?” have turned into “let’s plan for 18 Zoom calls” and more and more companies are appreciating the value that insights from online qual (and specifically online video interviews) can bring to their businesses.
What’s even better is that research participants, who may have only ever participated in an online survey, or at most a discussion forum, are becoming more and more open to online video interviews. “Zoom” has practically become a verb in everyone’s vocabulary and that online interaction with a stranger is becoming less and less scary.
Just today I had a research participant tell me in an interview "I appreciate [company name] doing this, it feels more personal and I feel like they will actually listen to what I have to say."
Additionally, people have become more willing to participate in live chats or interviews during the day. We see higher availability for lunch time interviews than the pre-COVID days, when being a qualitative researcher meant your days extended into nights, as that was the only time participants were willing to talk to you. What this has meant for our business is that more researchers can get involved, more interviews can be conducted in a week, and more insights can be delivered to our clients.
So sure, maybe we can’t catch up over drinks as we would like, but we are still connecting. Not only are we still able to conduct research while we are all stuck at home, I am in fact having more meaningful, personal conversations with clients and customers. I’m seeing the faces and hearing the voices of strangers across the country, who may otherwise have simply been a data point on a bar chart. If you ask me, that’s a pretty “social” perk of this challenging isolation.
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