A Step-By-Step Guide to Qualitative Research During a Pandemic
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A Step-By-Step Guide to Qualitative Research During a Pandemic

March 24, 2020

Mark Micheli

There’s never been a more important time to stay connected to and understand the thoughts, feelings, and actions of our customers. Now is the time for people to be heard.

My first job out of college was as an Emergency Manager for the U.S. Treasury Department, specializing in something cryptically called “Continuity of Operations Planning,” or COOP.

Working in Emergency Management was a little like working in insurance — you provide a service you hope nobody ever needs. We used intimidating words like “mitigation,” “devolution,” and “reconstitution” to describe how we’d prevent the worst, shift operations, and eventually get back to normal. And while I later moved on to a career in research, Emergency Management — and my Boy Scouting experience — taught me three very important lessons:

  • You can’t control the cause of uncertainty in an emergency…
  • …but you can control your response.
  • And a good response means having a good plan.

So what does this have to do with research? In light of our current situation — everything. 

In many ways, there’s never been a more important time to stay connected to and understand the thoughts, feelings, and actions of our customers (or, as they prefer to be called, “people”). In times of uncertainty, long-held beliefs morph and evolve — to continue meeting people where they are, we need to have a good plan.  

And while you’re right that most of us didn’t train for doing research in a pandemic, there are a range of digital, remote facilitation tools researchers have been ramping up on for years that can help us continue doing great, highly impactful work. 

Now, if in-person research feels a bit like putting on live theater, then remote research is more like shooting a movie. You can’t wing it. You need to have a clear, well-sequenced research plan and your discussion, facilitation, and activity guides need to be exacting in their detail. It’s a little harder to be flexible remotely, so your plan should account for contingencies and have tech backups ready. 

So, in the spirit of having a good plan, here is a checklist of resources you can use to keep your learning and research agenda moving forward. 

The Basics: They Stay the Same

While a lot has changed, plenty hasn’t. The basics of good qualitative research remain the same: 

  • Logistics: Well thought-out discussion and facilitation guides are crucial for moderating and leading conversations in real life and in digital environments — as are smart recruits that get you in front of the right people.
  • Moderation & Facilitation: Digital environments, like real life, also require great moderators and facilitators. Putting people at ease, building rapport, being sensitive to very real emotions, and getting to deep insights remains both an art and science. Now, it’s especially important.
  • Collaboration & Smart Synthesis: To make sense of what we learn from participants, you can’t do it alone. Thanks to a range of technologies and tools like Mural, where we collaborate is shifting but the outcomes remain the same. 
  • Compelling Reporting: To do right by consumers, we still need rock-solid, evocative, narrative-rich reporting to mobilize our teams and colleagues to take action. This is a time to be creative. Experiment with new mediums for insights storytelling — like videos, photos, microsites, and even animated gifs.

The Pivot: What Changes in the Shift to Digital

While you still need all of the above, how we execute research does require new tools, workflows, and creative thinking: 

  • Technology: The big one. Despite all the digital tools out there, nobody designed the perfect research platform for a pandemic. You need to work with your partners to think creatively about stitching different tools together to accomplish research tasks. We’ll go into more detail in a minute. 
  • Logistics: As you take research online, be ready to manage things like technical difficulties (have a backup dial-in if you can), ensure creative research activities are articulated clearly in your guide, and that everyone knows their role while facilitating, participating, or listening in. 
  • Methods: What worked a month ago may no longer be appropriate. There are a lot of approaches we recommend, and quite a few we’ll tell you just aren’t appropriate or safe right now. But that doesn’t mean they’re off the table forever — we’ll cover a range of creative workarounds below. 
  • Accessibility & Usability: As we go digital, we need to have a UX mindset. Is the platform easy to use for my participants? Are my questions and instructions clear? Test your plans and platforms with your partners and consider doing dry runs to pressure test bandwidth and system nuances. If you’re working with participants with different physical or cognitive abilities, make sure your activities adhere to Section 508 web design compliance so all can participate from afar.  

Digital Approaches: Designing Remote Qual Research for Rich Insights 

Where we conduct research has changed, but the process remains the same. Below is a simplified overview of a typical mixed methods project Kelton runs. From here, we’ll map out tools you can use to maintain your process but evolve your qualitative methods and activities to match the moment:

Phase 1: Align

Alignment is where you, your team, and your partners all get on the same page about the goals of a research initiative. You generate hypotheses, cataloging what you know, what you think you know, and what you hope to learn through the work — and then you move into recruiting, prep, and guide development. In the current context, there’s some great news: very little here needs to change! Here’s how you do it: 

Tips:

  • You’ll want two things: a web conferencing platform (like Zoom, WebEx, or BlueJeans, many of which support small group breakouts) + a collaborative whiteboarding platform (like Mural, Miro, or Whimsical). This allows everyone to be heard — and you can whiteboard takeaways in real-time together.  
  • Setup a template for your hypothesis session activity on your whiteboarding platform beforehand. 
  • Establish ground rules for how to participate and share thinking. 
  • Assign roles so you know who is facilitating and who is capturing the conversation on the whiteboard. 

Tools We Love:

  • Web Conferencing: Anything reliable will do — we use BlueJeans.
  • Collaborative Whiteboarding: We love Mural (more on that below). Whimsical is also worth exploring.

Phase 2: Explore

Here’s where things get tricky. There are a LOT of tools out there — many of which promise they’ll solve all your research challenges. Some will, most won’t — again, there’s no research platform specifically built for qualitative research in a pandemic (but I’m sure someone is working on it, patent pending).

But, with the right creative thinking, you have a lot of options you can stitch together in creative ways to get truly impactful insights. You don’t plant a garden with one tool, you need a few to get the job done. Here’s what we use and a few others to consider (Did we miss something you love? Share yours with us on LinkedIn or at [email protected]). 

  • Online SmartCommunities: SmartCommunities are great for getting incredibly deep insights and talking to many participants over a length of time (we do anything from 2-day to 2-week long studies). Each day can be a mix of journaling, photo/video share-outs, and creative exercises — many of which can be done easily and safely from home. Recollective is our go-to platform for these. 
  • In-depth Interviews & Focus Groups: For having live conversations with one participant or many (think digital dyads, triads, or full-on focus groups), you have a few options you can consider. Depending on the topic, there’s the path of least resistance (i.e. use any web conferencing platform) or there are options that give you everything you need to run polished, highly professional groups — complete with digital back rooms for your team, card sorting, whiteboarding, and polling. FocusVision’s Intervu and Discuss.io are two of our go-to platforms for these. 
  • In-Situ & Shopalongs: There’s a time and a place for research, and in a moment of social distancing we’d encourage you to find a range of creative exercises that can approximate in-situational interviews, without asking participants to venture outside until their local governments recommend it (reach out to us about activities and approaches for this, we’ve got a bunch that can bridge the gap and be done easily and richly from home). BUT, when it’s safe to start sending folks out, Mobile Missions are the way to go. For now, you can do a lot of in-context observational work in-home. Whether at home or out-and-about, d.Scout is our go-to platform for these. 
  • UX Testing: Ahh, UX testing. Here’s the good news: Now might be one of the best times to focus on UX testing and optimizing key digital touchpoints. There are two routes you can go: (1) Remote, live moderated (great for getting rich context) or (2) Remote, unmoderated (great for doing high-volume tasks analyses). And it doesn’t just have to be digital touchpoints (app or web) — you can use UX testing principles to test low to high-fidelity prototypes for emerging technology (from seed concepts and wireframes to voice interfaces and AR/VR experiences), store shelf planograms, consumer packaged goods, physical collateral, and menu design. Whether moderated or unmoderated, Validately is our go-to platform for UX testing. Depending on your needs, also consider UserZoom, Usertesting.com, Lookback, or Maze.
  • Card Sorting: Card sorting is an incredibly powerful tool in the researchers toolkit. It’s not right for every project, but where you need to have participants rank options, categorize ideas into themes, or go deep on the information architecture of an experience, card sorting is ideal. Card sorts are usually done in the context of an in-depth interview, focus group, or UX test — and luckily there are a range of tools that integrate sorting right into your interview platform. For card sorting, our go-to tools are FocusVision’s Intervu, Mural, Miro, or OptimalSort
  • Creative Co-Creation Activities: Finally, none of the above are substitutes for creative thinking. Some research methods you know and love, simply, are not appropriate in the current context. Even so, we believe with a good narrative, strong facilitation, and creative preparation there’s very little we can’t test, explore, or unpack with consumers and users. No tool is a silver bullet, and if you simply want a creative sounding board for how to tackle your research challenge give us a shout on LinkedIn or at [email protected]

Phase 3: Activate

Lastly, let’s talk about how you bring it all together. Your teams aren’t together, you’re working in ways that feel foreign, and your home maybe — just maybe — is full of distractions (everything from your kids to the ever-present temptation to nap in your bed). When it comes to activation, there are a variety of ways you can pull your team together, collaborate powerfully, align on priorities, and maintain a strong sense of momentum to push forward on your marketing, design, product, and business goals. Just like with the Alignment Phase, very little here needs to change. Here’s how you do it: 

Tips:

  • Go back to the beginning: There’s no substitute for a good plan. Now is the time where meetings shouldn’t simply happen — they should be designed. Bring intention to digital workshops through clear agendas and well-structured activities. 
  • Knock out the basics: Are y’all a Microsoft OneDrive or Google Suite tribe? We can’t decide either, so we use both. But align on how you’ll collaborate on documents and store files so you can review research simply and easily together. 
  • Pick a (virtual) location: To make the most out of group activation, align on a visual workspace you can all use. For us, Mural is a platform that can be used both to run remote alignment workshops, build experience maps in real-time together, and work collaboratively on complex problems across distances. 
  • Spread the empathy around: Can’t go to your customers? Bring them to you: use videos, photos, clip-watching exercises, and testimonials gathered during the Explore phase to create activation sessions that inspire empathy and move your team to take action. 
  • For all you (UX) designers and product managers: The design world continues to move a mile-a-minute. While Adobe Creative Cloud remains in the mix, tools like Sketch and Figma are the tool of choice for collaborative, real-time design. We used to love Sketch, now we’re all in on Figma for designing together and building/testing prototypes. And for managing your product backlog, tools like Jira and Bugherd will continue to help you prioritize what your developers work on and how best to leverage research insights. 

Being Heard Matters: Now is the Time for Research That is Deeply Human

Now is a time to go deeper on listening to your customers and understanding how you can be ready to meet their needs. Despite everything that’s changing, listening remains a gift — an exercise in compassion and humanity that’s needed now more than it was just a few weeks ago. 

I think the Wildcats said it best: “we’re all in this together.” While budgets, priorities, and approaches feel uncertain, don’t hesitate to reach out to your partners and friends to help you think through the best path forward. Nobody gets to control the uncertainty, but together we can build a plan to navigate it.  

We said it before and we’ll say it again: We love talking about this stuff. Reach out if we can be of help in designing insight-rich qualitative research. 

Mark Micheli

Vice President, Experience Innovation & Product Strategy

With a career spanning digital journalism, content marketing, product management, and UX design, Mark uses multiple perspectives to elevate the voice of users and unite cross-functional teams around...

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