When it comes to meeting the qualitative research needs of life science suppliers, choosing the ideal methodology can be overwhelming! In person or online? If online, which among the virtual smorgasbord of "next gen" techniques: forums, social media, mobile research, webcam sessions, online communities, blogs, journals, text chats...
Discussion of the pros and cons for each of these techniques, or hybrids among them, can fill entire books. To help you choose, this article will present some overall criteria and considerations that may facilitate your decision-making process when it comes to selecting in-person (eg, focus groups, interviews, ethnographies) versus online qualitative research strategies.
First to consider, what are your research objectives? What kind of information, insights, or inspiration do you want to garner? A clear definition of your objectives—before designing a research plan—is going to be your best guide for choosing the best qualitative technique(s).
In general, studies that are exploratory, conceptual, or broad based in nature beg for the richness and nuance facilitated by in-person research. This is also true of studies that involve brainstorming new ideas as well as testing products, services, and marketing materials for sensory or emotional feedback. If you wish to incorporate specific activities into the research, such as:
Then, in-person strategies are generally more fitting and effective than online strategies.
Despite what seems like daily innovations in online techniques (from enabling multimedia presentation of client stimuli to providing interactive whiteboards for participants' creative expression), it's more challenging to capture unspoken insights—body language, voice tone, energy, and emotions behind responses—in the same way as in-person research. And while exact percentages of how much communication is nonverbal (from 60% to over 90%), studies conclude that nonverbal behavior is the most crucial aspect of communication.1-3
Online strategies, as a whole, are better suited for studies involving hard-to-reach audiences, geographic diversity, and short timelines. They're ideal for conducting research to evaluate existing Web-based products, services or systems; gain feedback on sensitive or highly personal topics; and to garner longitudinal insights or track behavior over time. Going online is also superior when it comes to iterative concept development like testing multiple groups at the same time and testing with more concepts before worrying about burnout. In addition, there's the benefit that an online format usually costs less and is faster than in person.
Research scenario: Evaluate perceived strengths and weaknesses of a pre-clinical service provider relative to a competitive set among life science procurement professionals; brainstorm ways to most effectively meet unmet needs and deliver maximum value to client organizations. In person or online? Ideally, in person. The in-person group dynamic will help provide a holistic representation of the competitive landscape, identify current gaps, and allow face-to-face ideation sessions that tap into professionals' collective experiences, knowledge, and ideas.
Next, who are your research participants? A starting point is to determine whether your audience is even accessible in person and able to congregate in the same geographical location at the same time. Then consider whether your audience will have the flexibility to participate in person. For example, it's often challenging to get C-level pharmaceutical, R&D, or manufacturing executives to attend in-person focus groups and interviews. Such cases provide a good opportunity to use online qualitative strategies. Online focus groups would be appropriate if you require real-time group exchange and feedback.
If insights can be gleaned individually and then analyzed collectively, you may want to conduct an online bulletin board forum (a secure, moderator-led, non-real-time online discussion, allowing participants to log in and answer questions at their own convenience) or another tech-based technique, depending upon the specific research objectives.
Research scenario: Gain feedback to design the next generation data management package for high-throughput sequencing facilities at sites across the globe. In person or online? Certainly not in person. Participants are located in various countries (with different time zones); it is impractical or cost prohibitive to get critical mass in any one location. Moreover, the technology-based product assumes a Web-savvy audience; it makes sense to conduct online research in the form of forums or individual videoconference sessions. In this scenario, you can also conduct telephone interviews, ideally with a screen-sharing platform to present the online offering.
Real time or Non-real time
Should your research happen in real-time (synchronously) or non-real time (asynchronously)? If you need the audience to interact with each other and/or the moderator at the same time, consider real-time techniques such as in person, online, or videoconference-based focus groups and interviews. Instant messaging or other text-messaging strategies are great options when real-time is indicated, but feedback will likely be more abbreviated. If participants don't need to participate concurrently, or if research requires engagement over time, consider non-real-time techniques such as online forums for group or individual interactions, diaries, or blogs. Online communities and co-creation networks work well for collecting longitudinal insights.
Research scenario: Gain feedback regarding the ease of use and effectiveness of a multi-step antibody cloning and expression system that requires weeks to complete. In person or online? Here's a situation where the objective is to capture information over the long haul. So, in person won't get the job done. The longer the scientific procedure, the greater the need to document feedback of the moment and summary information after completing system use. In a long-term situation like this, real-time feedback is less critical.
Timing is another important consideration. How quickly do you need research insights, and with what level of depth? In-person research often requires greater overall time commitments, from recruiting to the final deliverable. In instances when deadlines are especially tight and/or you seek top-of-mind feedback (eg, quick reactions to advertising, products, purchase behavior), consider qualitative techniques that produce instantaneous responses such as text chat, social media/online communities, or mobile research.
Research scenario: Gain top-of-mind feedback about an advertising campaign for a new genomic sample preparation solution among research scientists. In person or online? Online. Participants can provide quick, succinct responses to questions posted by the moderator using online text chat sessions or messaging via mobile devices.
How sensitive or personal is the research topic? Online techniques provide a greater degree of anonymity than in person, allowing research participants to share at a deeper and more engaged level. For example, online focus groups, forums, or Web-based diaries, journals, and blogs are great qualitative techniques for exploring sensitive or ultra-confidential topics, such as testing never-before-seen technologies or clinical studies of a highly personal, emotionally charged nature. In these cases, research guidelines must ensure that confidential, project- or participant-specific information isn't included.
Research scenario: Monitor the performance of a new DNA amplification technology in a diagnostic test to identify treatment-resistant breast cancer. In person or online? Online. Unlike in-person focus groups or interviews, participants are "safely" removed from moderators or other group members and can enjoy a greater level of anonymity when they provide feedback online
Other considerations when choosing between in-person or online qualitative research include: degree of client involvement (eg, when/where/how do clients need to observe or engage with the research while it is in progress), confidentiality of client material (it's more difficult to fully ensure confidentiality of client materials when conducting online research), privacy among participants (how important is total anonymity/recognition of participants), and of course, cost. In general, online techniques are less expensive than in person as they save on travel costs and the need to rent physical research facilities. Costs for recruiting, incentives, and conducting the research itself, are typically similar between in person and online methodologies.
Table 1. Feature summary of in person and online research strategies
Looking back, looking ahead
Traditional in-person research isn't likely to end anytime soon. Its inherent strengths applied by a skilled moderator can't be completely replaced by technology. Yet, online techniques have firmly and deservedly earned their place in qualitative research; they offer myriad stand-alone solutions or serve as a supplement to in-person strategies. Online techniques will continue to proliferate, with new features, functions, and capabilities that generate valuable qualitative research findings. More likely than not, you'll have multiple options from which to select to meet the research objectives. If in doubt regarding which strategy is right for you, enlist the help of an expert qualitative researcher/research firm.
Ilana Drucker, president of Scorpio Research, specializes in conducting qualitative research and moderating studies for the life science industry. Her firm offers customized on-site or off-site moderator training programs for companies, non-profits, and private individuals.