The art of online research
'The Internet and Qualitative Research', a seminar run by Michael Herbert and Sarah Davies of Michael Herbert Associates, provided a fascinating forum to discuss this relatively new research medium in the appropriate setting of Cyberia, one of a chain of Internet cafés, which is situated just off the Tottenham Court Road.
Michael took us through the thinking behind and the development of Cyberqual, a highly refined version of the ubiquitous chat-room, which has been designed to replicate the focus group experience on line.
As with traditional research, seven or eight respondents are pre-recruited to 'meet' at a pre-agreed date and time to engage in a group discussion on a given subject (and unlike chat rooms, no-one else can butt in!). Unlike traditional groups, the client also has the facility to make private comments to the moderator, which can be very useful.
Logistically, there are clear benefits to the process, such as being able to conduct cross-national and international groups from the comfort of your own office, or having a ready made, precise transcript the moment the group ends instead of having to rely on the services of a transcriber.
But what about the imperatives of 'group dynamics', body language, tone of voice or any of the other visual or verbal clues that we use to get under the skin of what people mean, as well as what they say?
Or that, as a moderator, it can feel like you need to add 'Olympic typist' to your range of skills if you want to control and stay ahead of the group (especially with the client who insists on throwing in his or her tuppence worth)?
Such questions only really apply when comparing like for like, and virtual groups need to be thought of as a genuinely valuable addition to our collective methodological toolbox, rather than as an argument for re-inventing the wheel.
Logistics aside, the opportunities which exist for researchers to match the research issue to the medium are intriguing and, potentially, incredibly varied. But the real question seems to be: as the Internet becomes increasingly part of the fabric of daily life, can we afford not to be (literally) tapping into the thoughts of the 'connected generation'?
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 1999