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What’s the future of qualitative research?

Data, numbers, charts… What lies beneath the surface? 

Humans are complex, and getting the full picture means not just finding out what people say they do, but why they do it too. 

This points to one thing: we’ve entered the era of qualitative research. 

And with technology that can help drive better insights faster, the future of qual is strong. 

We’re seeing an explosion of techniques, technology and opportunities that can make even greater sense of the human experience. 

Let’s explore what we can look forward to – and how you can be in pole position to make the most of these possibilities. 

Using technology for deeper human insights 

When Covid-19 hit, it forced research online – and accelerated industry innovation. 

Enter the rise of research technology, or Restech. 

Simply put, this is an umbrella term to identify all the tech and automation solutions used to analyze data and draw insights for the market research industry. 

And Restech totally changes what’s possible, as it means researchers can get even closer connections to consumers. 

It’s clear that when it comes to quantitative research, the latest tech is a powerful way to supercharge speed and efficiency of data collection and analysis. 

But what about Restech and qualitative research – and its mission to understand the ‘why’?  

Well, digital tools bring completely new ways to get to this too – augmenting qualitative research rather than just replacing the traditional in-person methods.

It’s fair to say that we can now use technology to get deeper human insights. 

There’s a huge amount of innovation taking place via areas including: 

  • Forums and focus groups 
  • Participant recruitment 
  • Insight communities 
  • Biometric, eye tracking and implicit 
  • Mobile ethnography 
  • Analysis, reporting and management 
  • Video capture and analysis 
  • Useability and user testing 

Many tools have niche capabilities. Others straddle multiple categories – like Forsta – and bring much more functionality. 

Yes, Restech is booming – and having the right tech stack is now seen as a competitive advantage. 

The area of qualitative research is expanding at speed. In fact, it grew nearly 50% faster than the rest of the research industry between 2019-2021. 

With the rise of Restech, where does qual research go from here? Let’s look at some emerging trends, and predictions for where things will head. 

Qual trend: Watching as well as asking  

Even way back when, researchers relied on asking people questions. 

What started off as in-person interviews and focus groups has now expanded online and through mobile communities and apps. 

But seeking answers to questions is sometimes problematic. Do respondents always correctly remember things? Do they sometimes feel obliged to give the ‘right’ answer? 

That’s why what’s growing in importance in the world of qualitative research is watching how people behave – as well as asking them how they behave. 

Observing participants in their most natural settings: that’s observational research. 

And being able to capture natural behaviors fits with the fact that empathy is now scoring more points in the design thinking framework. 

The key is to combine the two: feedback and behavioral insights. 

Result? It’s about narrowing the ‘Say/Do’ gap, the gap between what respondents say and what they actually do. 

Remote user testing has long been a thing for digital products. 

But it can be done with tangible products, services, and experiences, too, with feedback captured on video. Capturing unboxing experiences is a good example of this (how good is the product design?). 

And virtual reality (VR) takes it one step further – particularly with high-value goods.  

Virtual car clinics, anyone? They’re a new way for manufacturers to test new automotive models entirely digitally.  

Time was prototypes would need to be shipped around the globe to get users’ in-car feedback. At a massive cost and risk of security breaches. 

Let’s talk retail environments, too. How do people behave when they’re choosing products at point of sale? With a simulated store, it’s far simpler to find out. 
 
And who can forget the Metaverse? It’s at the start of its journey, but research is underway to figure out how people interact, behave, and emote in a gaming environment. 

Gamers are highly engaged, with a breadth and depth of audience that means the opportunities for research are vast. 

Yes, VR and Metaverse technologies are new. But when observation and feedback are combined, the results could move (real) mountains. 

Qual trend: AI for better qualitative insights 

Qualitative research is no stranger to automation. When respondents give answers in online discussions, machine learning can run analysis – and suggest prompts for online moderators. 

And large discussions with large samples can be analyzed at speed using ‘Big Qual’ applications. There’s also text analysis with tagging and topic identification, and who hasn’t seen the growth in chatbot moderators for online interviews? 

So, it’s clear that qualitative automation is already making its presence felt. 

But let’s dig into one advanced feature of automation: large language models. 

At any one time, there are billions of online conversations taking place. From posts on social media, to conversations between people, and everything in between. 

And large language models could really change the game. 

With their origins in machine learning, they use advanced Natural Language Processing techniques trained on massive amounts of text data. This can be the online conversations and social media posts we’ve mentioned above. But also, transcripts, digitized books, news features and a host of other digital sources. 

And these large language models are getting better and better at intelligently summarizing what’s in open text qualitative interviews. Their strength lies in extracting a summary and then suggesting what they think is going on. 

Models grabbing most attention are OpenAI’s GPT3 and Google’s LaMDA

Qualitative researchers can stand down for now: it’s unlikely they’ll get to use them directly. But qualitative research tool builders? That’s a different story. 

More and more, they’ll start using these models in software applications for chatbot interviews that are more flexible than structured surveys. Plus, automatic summarizing of qualitative interview content. 

And we know that good ‘human’ moderators must have empathy, intuition, and secondary reasoning when they’re running interviews or focus groups. Future AI-based moderators could have these too (or more likely be capable of simulating them).  

Further on, these language models can create images from text descriptions. (We’re looking at you, DALL·E). What could this mean for co-creation, project exercises or concept development? 

Qual trend: Qual and quant will combine 

When qualitative and quantitative research combine, magic happens. Sure, it’s already happening to an extent. Participant recruitment for qualitative communities often involves surveys. And researchers embed video feedback question types directly into surveys too. 

But let’s consider far deeper connections: data science and data analytics combined with user research. 

We see a lot of forward-looking organizations where data science and analytics teams work incredibly closely with UX teams. And more and more consumer insights teams are staffed by primary market research and data science experts. 

This way they can combine qualitative observations and feedback with quantified measurement of product behaviors. 

When qualitative research is able to merge with larger scale data sources, everyone’s a winner. 

We’ll see better software features, more efficient project designs and efficient hybrid team structures to make this happen.  

So, what about the tools? What’s needed to merge qualitative and quantitative research together for deeper connections between the two?  

Fifth Dimension is a leading Australian strategic insight consultancy. And one of its customers commissioned it to do some face-to-face interviews with B2B users. 

Using Forsta technology, Fifth Dimension was able to build this as a conversational AI project instead, vastly scaling this qualitative activity.   

The result? Essentially it was able to combine the reach of a quantitative survey with the adaptability and depth of qualitative interviews, with hybrid quantitative-qualitative conversations with the 700 participants. 

Qual trend: Qualitative research will be for all 

Restech has democratized research. And qualitative research is becoming more accessible with lower barriers to entry that mean more people in more roles are doing it. 

Yes, this means there are more in-house research and insight teams carrying out research. But what we’re also seeing is people in other roles doing DIY research whenever they need it. 

So, this translates to product managers, designers, CX teams and marketers doing their own interviewing, moderating and community management when the need arises. 

In fact, it’s thought that nearly half (48%) of research is being handled internally through brands using DIY tools. 

Ever heard of the phrase doing the rounds in UX research: PWDR? It stands for “People Who Do Research”. 

Technology that empowers in-house research capabilities is a positive, right? And shouldn’t the fact that there are more PWDRs due to the democratization of research be something to celebrate? 

Well… of course, it can be helpful when other teams take on work. But it’s hard to escape the fact that research is a highly-skilled area – and data quality standards have never been so crucial to uphold. So, could this democratization be a double-edged sword after all? 

Qual trend: Human, still human 

With so many Restech tools around, is qualitative research being slowly dehumanized? No. Human intelligence is still firmly in control – and human craft is still the most important factor. 

It’s smarter to view new technology as a springboard for more effective research, rather than just a substitute for human effort. 

Sure, automation is set to increase. AI is growing in importance. But human craft endures – and human experts will be needed even more in this space.  

If the aim is deep insights and meaning from information, the human element is still non-negotiable. Let’s be plain: Restech cannot add any value without the human skills of the people using it. 

Of course, there are still some things a skilled qualitative researcher can do that machines can’t. Not quite yet, anyway. 

Although AI can spot patterns and relationships that are trickier for a human eye to detect, only that human eye can decide if that pattern is relevant or meaningful or not. 

And let’s talk storytelling, too. Can machines turn stats into stories? Not yet. 

So just a few of the functions set to make greater impact and supply greater value are: 

  • Professional services, tech support and customer success teams crucial for setting up and maintaining research platforms 
  • Project managers to help with recruiting participants 
  • Consultants and senior planners providing strategic advice 
  • Niche experts in areas like audiences, categories and geographies and countries 
  • Methodology practitioners in areas like semiotics, ethnography, psychology, behavioral science and anthropology 

Let’s not forget the skill involved in moderating focus groups – in-person as well as online (perhaps using a specialist online focus group tool like Intervu, designed specifically for researchers).  
 
It’s fair to say that facilitating the group dynamic, guiding the discussion and keeping participants engaged isn’t something machines can do (as we said, yet). 

Recruiting the future 

As qualitative research grows in importance, associated recruitment and roles will grow in lockstep. 

To take an example, UX research is a growing field within qualitative research. Anecdotally, the amount of job vacancies for “User Research” on LinkedIn is growing. 

And industry experts estimate that every year, advertised vacancies for this job function are increasing at 20%. 

The new generation of insight professionals have grown up alongside technology and can see how to leverage the new possibilities of online qual – which makes the professional landscape a strong one. 
 

Achieving next-gen insights  

Restech has brought a new approach to qualitative research, squeezing every drop of precious insight from each research method. 

The result of these game-changing innovations is that it’s now easier than ever to get high-quality qualitative insights. 

Is this area continuously innovating? Yes. And because there’s stellar growth, will this give businesses great opportunities too? You bet. 

It’s not just future-thinking businesses that rely on consumers’ opinions, attitudes, impressions and thoughts to drive their decision-making process 

As we weather a storm of economic turbulence, every single organization needs to be able to use these crucial insights to survive. 

Qualitative research is the smart way to make sense of the human experience. And what’s using innovation to provide clarity into people’s thoughts, views and opinions should take things to another level. 

You can use Forsta’s InterVu as a standalone product for online focus groups, or alongside Forsta’s wider offerings of market research solutions. Get in touch and we’ll run you through the powerful benefits. 

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