The qualitative research industry is an oxymoron. Qualitative research is typically a collection of a few - sometimes only one or two - like-minded brains who are good at talking with and listening to people, then analysing and presenting the thoughts in people’s heads and understanding what those thoughts might mean for clients.

Qualitative research is about thought. Industry is big companies, offices and factories filled with workers and machines and technology. Industry produces things or does things for you. Industry is about doing and making. So is it time for qual to grow up and become an industry?

Researcher as guru

I used to show a US film from the 60s called Putney Swope at conferences. At the start of the film a wackily dressed guy in chains, leather and denim (with MENSA written on the back of his jacket) lands on the roof of an ad agency in a helicopter and is led to the agency boardroom. His debrief is thus:

"A glass of beer is a cool refreshing beverage. That’s why it’s popular at poker games and sporting events - but in reality! A glass of beer is p.p. dickie".

He is then led from the room as one ad exec says "We paid $20,000 for that?" and another replies "Yes, and we got off easy!"

This model of the qualitative researcher as guru is probably still the dominant one in the minds of clients. The only competitor to this model has been the recent descent to ‘focus’. In ‘focus’ research the guru figure is absent and is replaced by the ‘voice of the people’.

This seems to have come about following the entry into the research industry of politicians on a grand scale. Even right-wing politicians, traditionally suspicious of any form of opinion other than their own, seem to feel the need to ‘focus’. This does not make us feel good.

Information overload

We are living in the strange times warned about in the Chinese curse. Arnold Schwarzenegger is governor of California. Scientists have made a sheep. You can tell where your kids are, to 50 metres, if they have a mobile phone. Manchester United is a worldwide brand. We go to war because someone is supposed to have some abbreviated things that sound bad.

In a recent copy of Research, Michael Warren was moved to observe: "people simply can’t cope with the amount of information that’s available". I will shorten that observation. People simply can’t cope.

It’s like this in the research business, too. Can I have a half a pound of your best insight please, research person? Could I have it with some innovation on the side? Can you travel with Stop! Airlines as this will reduce costs? Can we be global yet richly local on this project? Can you manage this in a loose, tight manner?

The problems (and opportunities of course!) facing the qualitative industry are the same as those facing business, politics and even personal life at the moment. How to go in two opposite directions at the same time - more insight with less cost - or maybe there’s something deeper? - or something more obvious?

Need for clarity

The main driver of the changes we see at the moment is the vastly increased speed of communication. Vast increases in speed of dissemination of information mean vast increases in transparency. Vast increases in transparency mean you need to be clear!

All this is pulling the qualitative research industry apart from its foggy position of trying to be both ‘in-depth’ and ‘quick and cheap’ to be either ‘in-depth’ or ‘quick and cheap’. Quick now means double or treble quick. And cheap means, well, cheap. But this is really where qual came in!

The ‘quick and cheap’ stuff started life in the 50s and 60s as a precursor to writing quant. questionnaires where nobody knew what were the important questions to ask. You sat down with some people to try out some things and then did proper stuff. ‘Real’ psychologists ran the ‘in-depth’ qual: people who knew where the casinos were in England. I think that’s where we headed again. And it’s a very grown up place to be.

No more touchy feely

In the quick and cheap arena the developments are going to be with the Internet and mobile phones. Clients already know that the ‘quality’ of response to questions in these media is of a different nature to conventional groups - probably because people feel it is easier to talk about some things behind the barrier of a screen. Body language is replaced by computer language.

One can also imagine qualitative research directly in the hands, or at least on the screens, of the decision-makers. This has to be a good thing. The minute you ‘experience’ something, your learning is improved dramatically compared to being told something! A whole new qual world emerges where you can try out your ideas and amend them as you go, of qualitative buyers who go straight to the rock face or PC screen.

In-depth qual is headed towards qualitative consultancy where groups and depths will be renamed ‘motivation research’ and expected to come up with some real, new insights rather than ‘when people eat a chocolate biscuit it’s often because they have firstly decided to have a cup of tea’. Psychology is clearly on the way back in and in-depth quallies will have real ‘reasons why’ they can ‘do insights’, whether this be ethnographic, anthropological, semiotic or have Buddhist credentials.

Equally, the in-depth qual companies will have to get into the ‘experience economy’, one recent buzzword. In other words after they have done the qual, they will have to get clients to ‘experience’ the results in some way, whether in workshops, staff training or constantly being the available guru!

The cost of experiencing the results is likely to be more than the cost of deriving them, but then the biggest sin with most research has always been that it’s not acted on and the whole investment is wasted.

Impact on pricing

So the qual industry deserves two types of company: quick and cheap and in-depth. The industry, meanwhile, should work to identify the fieldwork needs and rules, methods and training, and most of all, prices that go with different approaches rather than pretending it’s all the same stuff.

As qualitative means quality, I should also really amend ‘quick and cheap’ to ‘quick’ and ‘user-friendly’. The increasing ability of the internet to put things on people’s desks mean that lower costs should in the future be a by-product of the technology rather than the quality of response and analysis being lower. So although it might cost less it’s not cheap as in ‘focus groups’. This may get us out of the drive towards commodityville.

That’s why, far from being an oxymoron, the qualitative industry will be about thoughts and doing things. If you just want thoughts you need a QU approach. If you want analysis, experience and application you need I.D. Either way the qualitative industry is QUIDS’s in - which is as it should be, being as it’s a world leader.