Reimagining qualitative research

is the future via the screen?


Mike Nalder


#1. Does online qual encourage greater emotional openness?

#2. Is geographical independency a key focus of your research objective?

#3. Can we use ‘show and tell’ to increase engagement?

#4. How key is body language?


One of the greatest challenges facing traditional qualitative research methods arose following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic: how can this type of research be carried out when not in the same room as the participants? The main ally to protect all those involved in running and participating in focus groups and in-depth interviews turned out to be the internet. Online focus groups offered an alternative to traditional market research by collecting data from participants in discussions hosted on digital platforms under a moderator’s guidance.

As researchers, we navigated the transition to online research with an initial sense of trepidation, but we soon rallied, and adapted with considerable confidence to the new reality.

Following the easing of restrictions across the globe, research practitioners are increasingly interested in resuming face-to-face data collection. However, many of the advantages of running focus groups online are so compelling, that this approach is likely to be retained in the long term and has become a cost-efficient and quicker alternative to the in-person group.

Every choice between methodologies involves a trade-off. Each has its own advantages and limitations. At S2, we find online qualitative research as indispensable as face-to-face to the type of customer experience and concept development work that we often do.

In this newsletter, we share some key insights from our qualitative research team, based on experience from both perspectives.

#1. Does online qual encourage greater emotional openness?

Taking part online means that participants are in a familiar, safe, natural, comfortable environment in their own surroundings, which makes them feel less self-conscious or intimidated, and minimises the chances of being influenced by external factors.

Liberated by remoteness from the group facilitator and fellow participants, they will make more emotional disclosures. They feel more at ease online compared to the daunting context of an in-person discussion in a formal viewing facility, sitting next to a bunch of strangers and a two-way mirror! As intimate and comfortable as a face-to-face focus group can seem, social norms still apply. Removing the social constructs that exist in person allows people to feel comfortable enough to speak their minds and share their opinions. Ultimately, this gives you more honest responses and cleaner, more precise data.

The value of a professional moderator is the ability to create rapport, to ask questions and to open participants up; it is our moderating skill that helps create a successful online group and encourage engagement and interaction.

#2. Is geographical independency a key focus of your research objective?

Technology is driving new efficiencies in research, and this includes opening up a realm of opportunities. Since the participation is global, online focus groups allow us to recruit a more representative sample of the population we want to reach. Participants from all over the UK can come together to share their views; we are not restricted by travel distance to a focus group location, since all that is needed to join is a wi-fi connection. Busy schedules often stop people from being able to participate in traditional research methods. But, with no location restrictions, you can get a wider sampling of the country you’re targeting.

An unexpected benefit of the move to online during, and following, the pandemic is the variety of participants it allows us to recruit across different locations; rural voices can now be heard, with the ability to recruit participants from difficult-to-reach locations now more straightforward.

In addition, there are fewer last-minute dropouts since respondents are not required to travel to a specific location for the focus group.

#3. Can we use ‘show and tell’ to increase engagement?

A key benefit of online groups is the ability to combine them with pre or post tasks – visiting a website beforehand, recording a short video vox-pop introduction to themselves, collaborating on an image discussion, familiarising themselves with the topic or even completing a week-long diary.

Another upside is the level of engagement in spontaneous in-home tasks afforded by online groups.

In a recent series of groups for a well-known spirits brand, we asked participants to spend a couple of minutes going to their drinks cupboard and bring to the screen their favourite tipple. Another project on hair care involved an online ‘cupboard trawl’, where people were asked to reveal the contents of their bathroom cabinet. In both cases, participants found the activities fun, they acted as brilliant ice-breakers, and helped to stimulate animated discussion where people found common ground and were able to share experiences and swap advice, all of which contributed significantly to our insights.

#4. How key is body language?

In online qual there are fewer non-verbal cues available; you don’t get to see the same body language and facial expressions as in face-to-face focus groups. Subtle hints or gestures may be missed. This can reduce a layer of communication and efficiency, which can result in a less nuanced read on what people are really feeling and trying to say, and provides less opportunity to see how participants interact with one another and derive interpretations and insights from non-verbal interactions.

Additionally, product testing may go amiss online if the product involves physical interaction. One benefit of an in-person focus group is generating customer insights through interaction. In an online setting, this may not happen.

We have also witnessed occasions interaction between participants online becomes stilted, reduced to a quick Q&A style of interaction, or people talking over each other, and is particularly the case where people’s connectivity struggles with internet reliability and creates delays.

This can be managed by restricting the number in the group, and using a highly skilled moderator who will do work beforehand to ensure questions are clear and simple, make contingency plans for internet issues, and ensure that engagement is scalable.


Qualitative researchers will always have their preferred way of running focus groups, and we should pick the right tool for the task.

For some it will be online, for others it will be in person. Many researchers feel that nuance is lost in online research, and they don’t feel the strong sense of connection that they do in face-to-face interaction. For others, online focus groups afford a greater deal of emotional engagement from respondents and allow for greater flexibility and spontaneity, especially when it comes to tasking respondents to produce supporting evidence that can be easily accessed around the home.

At S2, we believe in looking at each business need individually and deciding on a case-by-case basis the best methodology for the specific research requirement, depending on factors such as location, the nature of the stimulus material to be shown during the discussion, and the types of tasks and exercises we might want participants to work on together.

Whilst in-person focus groups and in-depth interviews still play a key role in qualitative research methods, it is clear that the on-screen approach is here to stay.


Get in touch today with our team today to take your brand’s success rate to the next level.