Qualitative Research And Zoom

11th August 2020

Qualitative research is the act of focused curiosity, between people.

Not so focused that the conversation can’t gambol into pastures new. Not so curious that it becomes a Freudian shrink-fest. Qualitative enquiry leads to discovery, understanding, imagination, connections, perspectives – all of which help appreciate someone else’s world in a structured, actionable way.

Qualitative research must lead to action. If not, it’s just an interesting chat. 

‘Qual’ comes in all kinds of guises, with two principal formats: a group conversation, or a more intimate depth interview. The former uses collaboration and brainpower to think and create more insightfully than any single individual; the latter is more of a come-to-Jesus forum, the researcher being one-part confessor, one-part conscience, and one-part adversary of his interviewee.

On this occasion, I want to talk about research that learns from groups.

It is more than twenty years since I received the best piece of qual research advice. My friend, colleague and sometimes-collaborator, Jane Beaton, articulated in her pithy manner the key difference between a ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ research facilitator.

‘It’s about how well you internalise the brief’, she said. And I have stuck to that ever since.

Before you start asking questions, know why you’re in the room.

Getting to that point is more than writing a Discussion Guide (though I always do – not as slavish template, but as a means of assuring that we are all aligned). Nor is it as simple as reading a client brief (which is the start of an interesting conversation, never its completion). 

To ‘internalise the brief’, you gotta think it through, together. This exercise captures the best thinking of the whole team, which is the best moment to start talking to respondents.


So here I am, using this amazing research instrument for decades, when Covid strikes. I had heretofore avoided online qual research because the real in-the-room version seemed so palpable and, dare I say it, so obviously better.

Until I came to learn that it is not so simple. 

Over the last months I’ve Zoom-ified my research life, usually in the presence of 6-7 respondents on gallery screen. My note-taker is there too, but we don’t turn his video on: the less people realise we hang on their every word, the more they share naturally.

So much of research articulates what the collective mind sees, naturally.

Let me have a stab at the ways, obvious to me now, in which Zoom qual research performs powerfully:

(a) I can get a cross-section of respondents on any one gallery screen. I do not have to hear from only Galwegians, only Dubliners, or only Londoners, consecutively, like I do in the real world. Every group conversation is independent of geography – a powerful benefit if diversity of thought or culture is important for a project

(b) On Zoom, I can have a group conversation and one-on-one conversations simultaneously. That is to say, by using Zoom’s ‘Chat’ function, I can ask respondents to send me their individual thoughts on a question, whilst at the same time opening the issue up to all. There is a level of candour from the one-on-one chatbox which helps me dig deeper. It helps, in the way a metal detector might help you find keys you’ve lost on a stretch of strand

(c) Logistics are zombie costs, half-alive and half-dead. The hiring of a hotel room, or a dedicated research venue with refreshments can cost €100s – €1,000s per night, depending on city and season. Getting me there, assuming it’s outside of Dublin, costs my time, travel and accommodation. That’s quite a chunk of change, all told – investment that facilitates but does not directly improve the answer. Zoom extinguishes indirect expense

(d) It’s awkward meeting strangers. The prospect of joining a research group can seem intimidating to a respondent. Part of the moderator’s job is to help participants ignore the harsh lighting, the semi-professional environment, the two-way mirror, all delivered by some bloke posing awkward questions which make you think.

Zoom is different. It comes from the home, to the home. My background is my kitchen, because that’s where I am. The pressure feels lower, so the sincerity somehow increases. It’s hard to showboat when you command only three square centimetres of liquid crystal


This essay would not be worthy of the sixth-year debate standards to which it aspires, if it did not present the disadvantages of Zoom; which I now choose to flip as the advantages of live in-the-room research.

These are obvious, especially once you see them written down: 

(a) The most fundamental advantage is a technical, auditory one: you can hear everyone in reality, without audio delay or disturbance from two or more people speaking over each other. When everyone’s in the room, the conversation flows. Zoom conversations are more linear, with less natural intersections. For auditory reasons, they are composed of mini-monologues – demanding that the facilitator work hard to weld snippets of learning together

(b) An implicit feature of live, in-the-room research is that [this] facilitator can employ humour (craic, satire, send-up, quip, irony) as a means of bolstering energy, and encouraging ever-higher levels of participation and thinking. Real life is great for spontaneous passion, and for gut responses. Zoom, less so

(c) Being in the presence of human beings is more fun, on the whole. You get to enjoy someone by their chit-chat, understand them better through their gait, the fashion statement they make or fail to make, their willingness to engage others directly, their hand-writing, which they leave after them… Zoom can approximate to many of these, but it also drains energy. It can fall into uncanny valley territory rather easily


Yes. Zoom has its downsides. And also, it works! It is the breakout star of the global pandemic, and a new reality in our people’s lives.

It is a tool that sits alongside live, in-the-room research. For some clients, some briefs and some cohorts, it may be a better tool. If I were to repeat that project on bereavement and funerals in UK, I would rather use Zoom. If I want to understand what’s going on with leading-edge gamers in London and New York, I will simply recruit three from each city, and dial in from Dublin. 

Covid, for all its horrors and difficulties, is a catalyst to discovering new ways of acting in so many realms, challenging dusty assumptions in the doing.

Zoom is my new broom; it sweeps lean and quite clean.      

Subscribe to Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Leave a Reply