Safety and (dis)comfort in qualitative research

6 October 2021

Within an online environment, participants are extended the freedom to share ideas and sentiments that they otherwise might not feel comfortable sharing

8 min read
8 min read
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As of late, qualitative researchers have had to factor safety in their work more than ever: safety for both themselves and their participants, weighing the pros and cons relative to traditional in-person methods or experimenting with emerging and growing online options. Initially and early in the pandemic, concerns regarding safety were related primarily to physical safety and protecting one’s health. As researchers adapted their approaches to an online venue, we’ve observed a unique advantage that extends to another sort of safety, namely the safety offered by an online environment.  

Within an online environment, participants are extended the freedom to share ideas and sentiments that they otherwise might not feel comfortable sharing, if, for example, they were required to engage with a moderator or fellow participant’s reactions face to face. Extending this additional layer of social safety, however, could be regarded as either a pro or a con. A definite pro if the added safety extends participants more room to share an accurate and encompassing expression of themselves and their experiences, a con if reducing the stakes such that a participant presents an ideal too far removed from reality to properly serve as a base for anticipating real world behaviour. Proving a benefit then is reliant on how the researcher designs and maps a participants’ journey through a study, as well as the points at which relative safety might be increased or decreased. A researcher must be particular in deciding what content and interactions are made social and open to wider scrutiny, and what is kept private and between only the participant and the moderator. 

Online qualitative extends greater versatility to experiment with social influence

While the decision to conduct either individual interviews or focus groups requires that researchers reckon with the implications of bias and influence between participants, if in-person, it’s essentially an all or nothing decision. If selecting focus groups, everything a participant shares is in front of a group of peers. If selecting interviews, the opportunity to observe how participants influence one another is lost. Online qualitative research, however, introduces far more options to alternate and control these interactions and ideally present the opportunity to achieve the best of both in a single study. This greater degree of control now demands that researchers give more attention to the role that bias and group influence could and will play within a study. As we’ve observed, a clever researcher will even leverage bias as a tool, mapping discussion guides around key points of exposure, where participants will alternate from privately contemplating while under the guidance of a moderator to choosing the portions of that contemplation worthy and safe to share with a wider group. 

Aim to understand how virtual personas might vary

A possible flip side to this, and also something that should be factored when weighing the choice between an online or in-person approach, is that there could be significant differences between the persona a participant feels comfortable expressing online and that which they feel comfortable expressing in person. It’s a fair argument to say that both are valid but different expressions or aspects of who they are. The question is which persona is at the wheel when contemplating their interest in a product or service or advertising campaign, etc.? That is, relative to the subject matter at hand, a researcher will likely benefit from an understanding of who a given person feels they are in their public life compared to their private and/or personal life (perhaps this should even be considered when recruiting, but this is likely a topic for another time). The point is that a researcher must consider participants’ likelihood to feel greater pressure to exaggerate or downplay their given reality or perspective, relative to the subject matter at hand and the population’s demographic and behavioural profile. 

Maintain trust to maintain safety & comfort 

So far, we’ve noticed these ideas put into practice most effectively in industries we know to be sensitive, such as when engaging with patients, talking about financial planning, discussing insurance, among others. These ideas however, are applicable to any given subject or industry, and worth considering either when deciding between in-person or online, or when planning ways to use both creatively to satisfy any given research objective.

Before getting into some of the approaches we’ve encountered, there is one factor that seems to be consistent throughout those that are most successful: be irritatingly constant, consistent and transparent about what information will be shared along with why, how and when. Part of establishing safety is trust, and trust lost is difficult to get back. It’s understandable that a participant might feel betrayed if filming a video of themselves that they believe will only be viewed by the moderator (and the end client), only to find that it’s been shared with 20 or 200 other participants. Plus, if you aren’t certain that a participant understood the audience that their submission might face, it removes your ability to interrogate whether a participant was presenting a public or private version of themself in that instant. 

Creating a safe & comfortable social environment

While more could be said about ways to create a safe and comfortable online research environment in general, here are some of the approaches that we’ve observed in cases where researchers hoped to integrate and better understand the role of social interaction: 

1. Split Spaces

One of the easiest approaches to consider is to establish entirely separate spaces for private and public sharing, provided the chosen platform offers flexibility and needed structure. For example, a discussion forum which is always open and entirely social, paired with structured activities that are explicitly private. One can then serve the other, to compare ideas between the spaces. The private activities might be used to explore the themes which emerge in the open discussion, or open discussions might be posted to elaborate on unique ideas first shared privately.

2. Full Switch, Private to Public 

Another common but straightforward and effective approach is to begin with everything completely private, opening social options towards the end of an engagement. The latter social activities are sometimes built while in the field, drawing on themes expressed earlier in the project. Alternatively (and platform allowing), the private activities sometimes simply lead to live virtual focus groups where earlier findings are shared in aggregate the form as base for live discussion. Building on this, another option is to program a final social activity to unlock and direct participants to a separate social forum. 

3. Occasionally Social Throughout 

Getting a bit more complex, a third tactic is to keep the majority of work private but mixed throughout the study, select certain questions / activity elements to be repeated, but rephrased and made social, asking participants to reflect on their earlier response. This provides the researcher with a base point of comparison, to understand what elements a participant deems peer ready, while also opening opportunities for group discussion on a limited basis spread throughout the engagement to avoid it being overwhelming. 

At the moment, it seems the degree to which things will return to normal is unclear. Still, researchers have the flexibility and freedom to consider whether in-person or online will be the best approach for any given project, meaning they can adapt to any changing climate. Where safety is a concern, either physical or otherwise, online qualitative has demonstrated great versatility. This flexibility means that a researcher can create a comfortable environment which best positions participants to fully share their experiences, while also exploring new ways in which technology can enhance the depth and nuance of the data that is collected.

To hear more from Recollective join our upcoming webinar Best practices: Creating a safe and comfortable online research environment, on September 30th, 2021. Register for free today to learn more from Recollective's VP of Research Services, Laura Pulito. 

Dana Cassady
Director, Account Management at Recollective Inc. at Recollective