Exploring the Landscape of Online Qualitative

Portions of the following are excerpted from Qual-Online The Essential Guide: What Every Researcher Needs to Know about Conducting and Moderating Interviews via the Web by Jennifer Dale and Susan Abbott. Published under license from Paramount Market Publishing, Inc. This post is an edited extract from Chapter 3, Exploring the Landscape

mosaic with photos

There are so many forms of online qualitative, you may find yourself overwhelmed by all the choices. Fortunately, there are some key characteristics to all methods. Once you understand what these are, you can easily determine how to categorize anything new you hear about.

One big difference you will see in types of methodology has to do with the dimension of time. Synchronous methodologies all happen at the same time. The research event is scheduled in terms of a start time and an end time just like any meeting or focus group. Duration of the group is measured in minutes or hours, and you need to consider time zones. We refer to these methods as real time.

Time dimension

Asynchronous approaches are scheduled as well, but usually in terms of days or weeks or even longer. Participants come and go from the research event at their own convenience. Duration of the group is measured in days or weeks. We refer to these approaches as extended time.

A second dimension that distinguishes some approaches is whether the interaction is one-on-one (an in-depth interview or an individual diary) or a group discussion. Both of these approaches can be ported into the online world. Some online methodologies will let you do both, running individual activities like online journals in parallel with a group discussion, for example. The rules of face-to-face research don’t always apply.

Interaction dimension

A very useful categorization is to consider modes of interaction and types of data collected. On any project, the moderator may be communicating through a variety of modes, including voice (live or recorded), text, video (live or recorded), and images. You may be testing stimuli in one or more of these modes. And you may be collecting data from participants in one or more of these modes.

Type of Data Collected

In practice, there are platforms that pull these types of interactions together. Not all platforms include all modes of communication, and some are real time and some are extended. These distinctions are quickly evaporating as platforms keep adding features.


As each methodology expands its multimedia capabilities, methods are becoming more flexible and adaptable.

However, each methodology has strengths and weaknesses and the approach to design for each is somewhat different. Some methods require relatively little set-up time (e.g. web-enabled interviews) , and others have significant set-up time (e.g. bulletin board groups). The depth and quantity of data collected from each method varies as well – some methods are better for collecting in-depth responses, and others are better for in-the-moment reactions.

Susan Abbott is a consultant with a passion for customer insights that power new ideas. She is president of Abbott Research and Consulting, and co-founder of Think Global Qualitative, a global alliance of master qualitative researchers. She is co-author, with Jennifer Dale, of Qual-Online: The Essential Guide.


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