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Emerging from behind the screen….

As we cautiously ease our way out of lockdown clients are starting to ask for a return to face to face fieldwork.

I’ve really missed the authentic contact that comes from face to face groups. But tempting as it is to get back to what we do best, I am hesitant.

Viewing facilities have had to adapt the way they do things.

  • They need to allow for social distancing, for observers in the back room as well as for respondents, which means fewer respondents, and fewer clients.
  • Windows need to be open – which could lead to noise, or lack of privacy.
  • Infection reduction measures are required for stimulus that might be handled.
  • We all need to wear some kind of protection, either visors or masks, which limits our ability create rapport and to read facial expression.

Facilities tend to be in city centres, which not only means that we as moderators have to brave public transport (perhaps for the first time in a year) – but we are asking respondents to do the same. And of course we need to be aware of local area restrictions, and of government guidelines to limit travel and overnight stays.

Respondents must confirm that they feel well (and if at the last minute they do not, we need either to manage clients’ expectations, or to have a potentially costly back-up plan in place). There is also a risk that if cases in their area begin to rise, respondents may suffer last minute nerves and decide not to spend their evening in a room full of strangers.

We are also obliged to inform respondents of the potential contact tracing consequences of attendance. If someone in the group subsequently tests positive that could have significant implications for the rest of the participants.

And what if we are unwell, or a member of our household tests positive? It will be important to have an alternative moderator lined up to take over, which could impact on costs.

We have a duty of care towards the people good enough to turn up and give us their views. That duty is enshrined in the Market Research Society standards in the phrase “Research practitioners have a responsibility to protect vulnerable groups, participants and the reputation of the profession”.

In fact, current MRS guidance stipulates that face to face fieldwork should only be undertaken when there is no feasible alternative. Precisely what this means is not specified, but I think a reasonable assumption is that if respondents need to taste something, that could qualify for face to face; but if they simply need to see it, that should still happen remotely.

We have made incredible strides in conducting qualitative research remotely during lockdown. I have conducted projects I would not previously have considered for an online methodology – including lengthy testing of video games, detailed pack design evaluation, and app UX research, all very successfully. And clients have enjoyed being able to observe from the comfort of their own desks around the world.

The crucial difference between face to face and online fieldwork is that we are not obliged to conduct a risk assessment prior to conducting groups online, and nor do we need to worry that our choices may have a harmful effect on the health of our respondents.

So for now, I am enthusiastically recommending to clients that we continue, if it is at all possible, to enjoy all of the benefits that conducting qualitative research online can bring.

If you would like advice on how online research can help you, or on how to go about it, please get in touch. I would be delighted to share my experience and the hints and tips that I have picked up along the way!