In traditional qualitative research, the tendency to gravitate toward focus groups is quite intuitive…it makes economic sense to interview multiple participants together at once. But, that is not the case with online qualitative research, especially asynchronous (e.g., bulletin board) online qual. When conducting qualitative research online, researchers still often stick with a group format, but why is that? When designing an online qualitative study, it’s best to take a step back and ask yourself if there is any benefit in allowing group interaction. If there is not, then our recommendation is to make your study private (in essence, creating a series of parallel online one-on-one interviews, rather than group format). Qualitative study participants are recruited (and incented) based on a commitment of a certain amount of their time. If you, as a moderator, are asking them to spend a portion of that time reading and responding to others’ feedback, then you are cutting into the amount of time each participant can spend providing his or her own feedback.
There is absolutely a time and a place for group interaction in some online qualitative sessions. Laddering and collaborative brainstorming techniques, for example, can be incredibly insightful, but when such techniques and interactions are not needed, is it worth participants’ time to listen to or read through others’ responses and react when they could be going into greater depth about their own personal stories? This question is particularly important when the subject of a study is experience with a product or service. In these cases, you can arguably taint participants’ responses by injecting the experiences of others.
So, what do you do when you want to both encourage group interaction but also allow participants to provide unbiased individual responses (i.e., the online equivalent of a focus group moderator asking participants to individually mark up their feedback on a copy of a product concept and turn it face down before discussing)? As a digital alternative to this in-person technique, we often recommend, and have built a feature into our BlogNog research platform that can require participants to submit a response to a given question before allowing other participants’ answers to that same question to be revealed (we cleverly call it our Private-Then-Public response feature).
The next time you are scoping out a qualitative research study, take a minute to think about the cost/benefit tradeoff of doing so publicly, privately, or private-then-publicly.