The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Digital tools in qualitative space

Joanna Chrzanowska compiles a brief introduction, ranging from netnography to crowdsourcing

Web 2.0 (the interactive sharing web) has opened up huge possibilites for finding, creating and analysing qualitative information online. The following outlines the seven main areas in which online research can impact on traditional qual. We did envisage including an extended version of this article online, but given the fluid nature of this whole area would like to suggest, instead, that members would benefit more from attending the AQR's online qual course planned for later this year.

Web Search and analytics tools for "listening"

Powerful, often free, tools enable anyone to search and analyse existing content on the web to "listen" to conversations about products and brands, to follow trends, analyse language, word of mouth and sentiment — in real time. Natural language processing tools help analyse vast amounts of data to pull out insights.

Netnography or Webnography

Netnography is the study of naturally occurring groups on the web — e-communities, such as user groups. As in real life it can be participant ethnography where you actively engage, or purely observational. Both are fraught with ethical, validity and data protection issues.

Also "Ethnography lite" and "immersive" online tools

  • Text, camera phone or video postings to message boards (see BBFGs) to capture how participants are feeling or what they are doing in-the-moment, without intruding or following people around.

  • In situ narrations, again using mobile phones to capture descriptions of experiences, or wireless webcams that can record behaviour, words and expressions in various settings.

  • The above can also be used for pre- and post tasking.

Online focus groups (synchronous or in real time)

These take place in a "group room" where people meet at an appointed time and respond in real time to questions and stimulus shown by a moderator (or two). Most common format is chat (i.e. typing questions and answers) but video groups are becoming more practical. An intermediate stage is to use avatars (online representations of individuals in the group).

Asynchronous formats and platforms

Web 2.0 means people can interact without physically being there simultaneously. Many formats draw on the look and conventions of social media. Variations include:

  • BBFGs (Bulletin board focus groups/forums)
  • Blog groups
  • Private social networks
  • Wikis
  • MEGs (Moderated email groups)

Replicating offline research tasks

Tools exist that can make collages online, "mark up" stimulus material with changes and annotations, initiate concept building, thought bubbles, laddering, etc.

Online Communities

These are created specifically for brand advocacy, customer relations management and ongoing research. Unlike panels, these have a social, interactive centre, allow/encourage members to start their own discussions, and are actively moderated, managing relationships and group dynamics — even with larger communities numbering hundreds or thousands. Those created specifically for research are called MROCs (Market Research Online Communities) and generate both qualitative and quantitative data.

Ideation, co-creation and crowdsourcing

All of the above make it easy to involve designers and clients in the research and creation process, although some brands set up websites that are specifically about asking consumers/designers/specialists to share their ideas and knowledge.

Also known as mass collaboration/crowd voting/crowd wisdom/Wikinomics, crowdsourcing taps into the collective intelligence of a broad audience, generally online, to complete tasks traditionally done by a single person or small group and is used in new product development.

Web 1.0
Push model: text and images pushed out to users

Web 2.0
Sharing web: blogs, wikis, video, podcasts, social networks — readers determine the content

Web 3.0
Live, real time, personalised web services can interact with each other


Joanna Chrzanowska
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2010