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Is Online or In-Person the Best Qualitative Research Method?

In-person, online or combination of both are qualitative research options

Is it time to expand your qualitative research toolbox? Considering the escalating market research demands placed on moderators, you really don’t have a choice. But how do you choose between online, in-person, or a combination of both? Size up the situation, and you’ll find the tool that fits.

As product development becomes more democratic, success correlates with how deeply, and how often, companies can engage with their market to identify consumer needs and desires. At the same time, there’s an ever-expanding assortment of qualitative research methods. You’re not only expected to make the right choice between the available tools, but also deliver the results at the lowest possible cost. The big question mark for many qualitative researchers: Do I use traditional or online research? That is what we asked Pat Sabena, an independent researcher whose “curiosity about people” has kept her in the field for 50 years.

Moderators are asking because the paradigm appears to be shifting. Usage of mobile technologies is on the upswing, and the percentage of moderators using online tools remains strong. But according to the GRIT report, in-person methodologies are also growing.

So which do you choose? Consider some of the following criteria as you tap your toolbox.

Physical Presence

As a general rule of thumb, if a researcher needs to physically see the task or activity to more deeply understand it, then it is best to use in-person methodologies. For example, observing how participants mow their lawns is better done face-to-face.

It allows for more immediate give-and-take. On the other hand, consider a study about snacking behaviors. If a participant is required to record how many times per day he or she grabbed a snack, then the data can easily be collected online. (It’s hardly cost-effective for a researcher to stalk a snacker.)

You can also use each method simultaneously with an online community. The online forum allows you to identify topics worth investigating early in the process. You can then delve deeper by conducting in-person focus groups. “Using both face-to-face and online methods increases your reach across the continuum,” Pat says.

Participant Behavior

To see a person’s true colors, online studies generally offer greater anonymity. Participants answer questions more candidly because they have less incentive to please the moderator. 

Face-to-face research allows a moderator to examine the body language of participants to indicate whether or not they are telling the truth. However, any seasoned moderator will tell you it’s no easy task to read body language and probe simultaneously.

According to Pat, participants reveal secrets online sooner than they would in person, but those revealing secrets face-to-face tend to go into more depth.

Your goal is to find the truth – or at least the consumer’s version of it. So which leads to better truth-telling? There’s no clear-cut answer here. While both methods have their perks, you’ll find the most success by choosing the method you feel most comfortable using.

Conversation Flow

Does conversation take place online? It depends on the moderator tool. More discussion-oriented tools, like social media and software such as Digsite, allow the conversation to flow much like it would in an in-person setting.


According to Pat, “on-the-fly” conversation tends to generate more quality results. “The most brilliant idea can be spoken by one person, and can change the entire conversation,” she said.

This is a departure from the days when online tools used to be in a bulletin board format. That process limited conversation, making it more structured and less democratic. Transcripts from bulletin board online research also tended to be lengthy, daunting and intimidating. 

In-person conversation can be more free-flowing, but the success depends on your ability to pull insights from the shy ones and keep a lid on the conversation dominators.

Data Generation

Online research typically generates more data than in-person research, thanks to a wider geographic spread. When participants differentiate geographically and culturally, “you are more likely to get different stories,” Pat says. This can lead to more insightful data for online qualitative research. 

Not surprisingly, moderators are gravitating toward hybrid online and in-person research methodologies. For example, online communities allow researchers to engage with a wide range of potential customers. They have the flexibility to pose blanket questions to the group at large, then dig deep when insight appears close at hand. 

For Pat, who has been all around the world, it is nice to be home these days with her retired husband. “In this season of my life, I like online better,” she says. “It allows me to be a mom and grandma.”

Online, face-to-face, or hybrids of both methods: Each is now a requirement in every moderator’s toolbox. The sooner you understand how each works – and how they can work best for your client – the sooner you deliver the insights that can make a difference.

See Digsite in action and discover how if it fits your needs-join us for an interactive demo webcast!



Topics: Online Communities, Moderating Online Qualitative

Jane Boutelle

Jane Boutelle

Jane is the CCO and Co-Founder of Digsite, where she and the team provide the first truly social platform for getting consumer insights and user feedback. She has a deep background in software product management and marketing.