The Future of Qualitative Research is Digital

This post was originally published in Research World.

The pandemic forced many agencies and global brands that traditionally relied on in-person focus groups and interviews for qualitative research to go online. Insights professionals that were already collecting insights from online discussions ramped that up significantly. The latest GRIT report showed a massive increase in 2020 in the use of online qualitative methods like in-depth interviews and focus groups – a jump of 12% and 20% respectively.

Transitioning to a new methodology so quickly raised a lot of concerns among researchers. Would they get the same nuance in response? How would the back and forth and probing work? Will the technology work? Would it be the same?

The answer, at a glance, is no.

It’s not the same

It’s not the same; it’s different and better. One client shared a story around her need to talk to young moms. Normally, they would have respondents come into a facility in their city, which limits their respondent pool to people in specific cities who can physically come in person to an interview.

By moving the process online, this researcher was able to talk to a single mom, who was at the break room at her office pumping breast milk via an online session in an entirely different city. She said that she would have never been able to talk to this new mother with the traditional interview process. Not only did she have access to a consumer she otherwise would have missed, but she could speak to the woman in the context of using her product, evoking richer feedback.

Researchers are able to connect with more people in a shorter period of time in more difficult-to-reach locations. Intimacy can be deeper as insights professionals are talking to people in their home, in a more comfortable environment. Researchers can also do more with less time, leveraging technology to create transcripts, organize answers, and automate video clips.

Despite the leap in digital transformation brought on by the pandemic, there is still so much more to gain from digital qualitative research in 2021. Two of the top methodologies we’re seeing going into 2021 are around mobile – mobile ethnography and mobile qualitative research.

With infrastructure advances like 5G and improved mobile technology, conducting research in real time, anywhere in the world, will go from being a dream to a possibility. Non-western markets still lag behind their counterparts in adoption of mobile qualitative methods, leaving technology companies a clear opportunity to improve worldwide offerings.


Similarly, with the rise in digital qualitative methods comes a demand for improved and automated analysis, with natural language processing (NLP) leading the way. Though the use of NLP is somewhat widespread in Western markets, models in languages other than English are less developed. Companies that focus on leveling the playing field will come out on top in 2021.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for improving mobile qualitative research this year is in not just mimicking the in-person dynamic but leveraging technology to improve it. Activities can be done faster and in a more engaging way in a virtual whiteboard than in person. Technology can hide and reveal markup and answers to prevent bias and track speaking time so a researcher can involve all respondents equally in a conversation. Digital methods allow for a more diverse, more equitable experience than has ever been possible with in-person methods.

As marketing continues to pursue a personalized and empathy-driven approach, marketers have to expand the pool of respondents they tap for feedback and insights. Digital qualitative methods make that a reality and allow companies to introduce empathy programs at scale. With a larger respondent pool and a lower barrier to entry for moderators, it’s possible for everyone from associates to the c-suite to interact with customers.

Qualitative methods have traditionally garnered 20% of research spend. With the adoption of digital qualitative research, increased access to consumers, the ability to scale research, and the cost savings over in-person work, we see researchers who might have planned on 20-30% of their research from online interviews now planning on 70-80% online this year. The pandemic will fade, but the digital transformation is here to stay.


Ashley Wali is the former VP of Product at With over a decade leading teams in high-growth environments across live video, VoIP, e-commerce and B2B SaaS, her focus has been Live video conversations; WebRTC video applications; B2B SaaS platform development; structuring unstructured qualitative data for ML analysis; process automation.