More and more qualitative research is happening online. One of my favorite tools for this is the discussion forum, also known as a bulletin board. This is an asynchronous environment -- everyone is not necessarily present at the same time. [I so wish there was a better word for asynchronous!]
It's not quite the same as face-to-face. In person, if I hear something intriguing, I might ask, "Can you say more about that", or something similar. This is known, in researcher parlance, as a "probe". Although we try to make it gentle -- drawing out more information and ideas -- sometimes I think it feels more like a sharp poky thing.
In the discussion forum environment (asynchronous), you definitely can probe and ask follow-up questions. The technology support for making this easy has improved a lot – we can now flag things, send a mobile message, or e-mail to the respondent.
My approach on this has changed a lot over the years -- I try to be more of an active listener, and less of an inquisitor.
Treat participant energy as a scarce resource
I treat follow-up questions as if I have only a very limited number I can use, and I must use them only when really important. Here’s why: I really love it when participants start to engage with each other. But they do this less if I’m constantly butting in.
Not only that, but asking people to go back to something they said before is sort of like trying to rewind a conversation by hours or days — people have moved on. The energy is now somewhere else. So you spend a lot of participant energy asking them to go back. When people do go back, their responses are often not worth the cost in energy.
The virtual head nod
Probing does have one clear benefit — it shows people you are listening. And listening is hugely important. Participants see what you say, and see whether you are listening and understanding them or not.
If I don’t have a definite need to follow-up for additional detail, I sometimes restate what I am hearing, just as I might do in a F2F discussion. This approach generally results in feedback from the participants that they really felt “heard”, which is so important. Who wants to talk to an empty room?
The virtual head nod is even shorter — just an indicator that I’m there, reading and listening.
Clients distracted by other work may log in and read something intriguing that happened earlier in the week. Then they want me to post a follow-up.
To keep everyone happy, I tend to bring this kind of thing back in with a fresh topic later on, rather than ask people to go back.
I do make my presence regularly felt, as often as possible given the demands of eating and sleeping, but limit the number of probes.
There is another school of thought that you can run these projects with no probes at all — I think that would produce significantly reduced output. However, there are some new DIY qualitative platforms that essentially take this approach. There is no active listener.
What’s your view?
Does this resonate with anyone out there? Either as a participant in some form of interview or discussion, or as a moderator of same.
Portions of this were previously published on the NewQual Blog.