Why the pandemic has changed the qualitative research landscape forever

Dr Ryan Cummings, Ph.D. gives his key takeaways from Qual 360 North America in Washington D.C.

Fresh from speaking at the recent Qual 360 North America (NA) event, Dr. Ryan Cummings, Ph.D., Director, Research Partner, shares his key takeaways, including why he feels the pandemic has changed the qualitative research landscape forever.

Ryan was joined at the event by fellow UX and CX professionals, as well as qualitative researchers from a variety of global brands - including TikTok, Reddit, Microsoft, Mars, Marriott, Indeed, Pinterest, and Pepsi Co - to discuss the latest trends and developments in the world of qualitative research.  

Humanizing data

One of the key themes myself and fellow practitioners took away from this year’s Qual 360 NA is the idea of building empathy through human insights. UX and CX professionals now have the technology to humanize the data we collect from consumers’ interactions with our brands. 

Consumers are no longer data points from which companies can assimilate knowledge about their products. Today, consumers interact with brands across many different touchpoints – and that information is used to create personalized omnichannel experiences.

As a result, consumers' needs are met, and conversely, companies can increase their margins and strengthen their brand loyalty.  So, through fast and all-encompassing digital experiences, both sides benefit. Ultimately, the EQ advantage of humanizing data is that great consumer experiences drive consumer loyalty.  

Just recently, the celebrated author Simon Sinek tweeted: “We don’t do business with companies. We do business with people. Business is always human,” and this is the world companies are currently immersed in, through real-time engagements with their consumers. 

Many companies already recognize the correlation between better digital experiences and increased margins; another takeaway from Qual 360 NA was just how many companies now have a Director of Human Insights. This trend earmarks a milestone in the history of user experience.

UX and CX are now being recognized as a core business function rather than a nice to have. We are slowly seeing many organizations start designating C-Suite leadership to the business vertical as it directly impacts organizations’ bottom line. 


COVID-19 changed a lot for qualitative research

Undoubtedly the lessons learned around qualitative research from the worldwide pandemic have been both profound and fast – they have led to tectonic shifts in how our research is conducted. Everything has accelerated, and our current speed to insights is breaking new ground. The pandemic's legacy is drastically shifting how we conduct qualitative research indefinitely.

My peers at Qual 360 NA were astounded at the speed of insights incorporating data from various qualitative methods. Increased speed, broader geographic demographics, pivots towards asynchronous interviews, and lower costs are all lasting demands that will dictate the future of qualitative research.

Interviews, traditionally carried out face-to-face, had to be moved to video platforms during COVID-19. However, this led to more nuanced data and research being conducted as wider populations could be explored faster. Long gone are the days when testing protocols relied upon, and demanded, in-depth interviews (IDI). Participants can now answer questions in their own time, which leads to more informed and thoughtful insights. 

The traditional focus group approach of asking a handful of consumers about their habits changed too during COVID-19 – no longer could you gather all the feedback in one session. Researchers had to change their methods, which resulted in more intimate sessions with participants. Individuals had more time to consider their answers, consequently providing a richness of qualitative data that detailed a person’s thoughts, opinions, and experiences.

This reasoning, coupled with the fact that remote interviews were cheaper than paying for subjects to meet in one location, has shifted qualitative researchers' thinking about future interview methods. We now have more breadth to our research, not just the depth. A mixed-method approach to research is still the 'best in class' method of telling the people story around their attitudes and behavior regarding decision-making. 

Remaining strategic is still key 

The global pandemic showed us just how quickly marketplaces can suddenly transform. Overnight, everyone became a digital consumer and the pace of digital change accelerated immediately – with consumers' mental models on spending shifted in a new direction. As a result, businesses needed to think strategically about maintaining their competitive edge. 

Companies need to constantly assess who their target audiences are to ensure they continue to meet their needs and expectations. This foundational understanding is paramount to the success of any company in today's digital age. 

But addressing consumers’ current needs does not speak to the future needs of consumers. Organizations need to invest in innovation and manage efforts like any other corporate function with the objective to identify and attempt to predict consumer behavior and future needs. Doing so will allow organizations to keep a pulse on industry disruptors, identify opportunities to invest in first-to-market trends, provide the ability to pivot and re-prioritize efforts in a changing marketplace and enable them to attract new consumers.

It can be a tough call to introduce new products, features, and services into a marketplace that doesn’t even know what it needs yet. However, remaining thoughtful about taking a business approach to improving products by understanding net new features, functionalities, and innovations – will pay dividends in the future. 

Main image by Hannah Wei

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